Thursday, January 31, 2013

Is Intellectual Property Real?

Intellectual property is a term that's been gaining traction. It's probably America's biggest export. Richard Stallman claims that the term "intellectual property" is a mirage and (to my mind) rightly claims that it confuses various different laws by grouping them together - mainly copyright, patents and trademarks.

I've got to admit to scoffing when someone thanked me for my contribution of "intellectual property". In an Open Source mentality, it's not MY intellectual property, but rather, the contributions of billions. Probably 90% (that's generous - 99%?) of what I know is from what I've read or what others have told me. A very small proportion of what I "know" is from first hand knowledge.

So about the confusion... The general public license (GPL) relies on copyright in order to function. Without copyright, it does not work. It wouldn't be worth the paper it's written on. However, patents, which grant a "limited" time monopoly, have created all sorts of negative effects on the technology sector. The cellphone wars, which are happening currently, are a great example of this.

In 2003, SCO claimed that Linux contained code owned by them - specifically code from Unix System V. If they'd been successful with their lawsuit, we might not have Linux - or at the very least, we'd be paying licensing fees for Linux. This would likely mean no Android, ChromeOS, more expensive hardware (routers/modems etc.) etc.

If Intellectual Property is a real thing, then it means that companies have been stealing from us. Disney for example, with it's constant campaigning for extensions to copyright, have kept works that should now be in the public domain - i.e. works owned by everyone - out of the public domain. Need I point out that a lot of Disney's films are based on works in the public domain? Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Robin Hood, The Jungle Book etc. In America, the Copyright Term Extension Act has meant that nothing will enter the public domain until 2019 at the very earliest.

I would also argue that a lot of the laws around "intellectual property" are counter to the information age. Things change at lightspeed. Granting a patent on technology only really serves to hinder technology... for 20 years! Think about it - cellphones are almost indistinguishable from what they were 20 years ago (a brick with a thick straw and loads of buttons vs. a flat device with very few or no buttons and a glass front).

We also shouldn't be dismissive of the silly patents that have been granted and are still being granted. 1-Click stands out. Amazon had a patent based on simply storing a customer's shipping address, billing address and credit card details. Imagine the Internet with horribly convoluted "shopping carts" and how long it would have taken the Internet to become a truly viable business medium.

Silly trademarks also have this issue. Microsoft claimed that the name "Lindows" would cause confusion and erode their trademark to "Windows" - a term that I think is just so absurdly generic (i.e. "Switch back to your browser window". I'm kind of glad this trademark dispute was upheld as I feel that Lindows probably would've eroded Linux's reputation). Apple claimed the same for the Amazon Appstore being an infringement on App Store - a claim I would also dispute. I'd used the term "App" to mean application for years before it became trendy for cellphones (I'm still waiting for "proggie" to become popular).

I'm of the opinion that research is also greatly effected negatively by "Intellectual Property". Could a cure for AIDS have been found if knowledge could be shared more freely? There is a counter argument here: would pharmaceutical companies invest in AIDS research if it wasn't profitable to them? Which then has me gritting my teeth about the emphasis on profit over people... Ditto on things like Cancer research (how many different cancer research organisations do you give money to? ).

So for "intellectual property" to be profitable, at least in the case of patents, it needs to be able to hinder the industry for which it's derived from. Longer copyright terms result in information being kept out of the public domain and thus losing us the opportunity to work with or improve upon older works. Trademarks, while I don't really have a real problem with them, are, in some cases, getting silly.

But aren't patents supposed to help innovation by making the investment in research profitable? And copyright - well that's just common sense - allowing an author to profit from their works. I'm not really concerned with Trademarks at all.

But where does this leave our "knowledge based economy"?

Clare Curren made a statement during the Debate on the Prime Minister's Statement (for anyone who read my last post, I termed it "The Prime Minister's debate because this is how it was termed on the news. I was being a little tongue in cheek about it) yesterday asking "Why is the government not looking into a weightless economy?".

I find myself with mixed feelings about her speech. I'm choosing to take it as a call to review our "IP" laws and get them right. Let's acknowledge the speed of change around technology and remove patents as a barrier from the industry. My personal view on copyright - let's stop trying to protect the profits of multinationals by criminalizing people and instead come up with sane laws which encourage industries to adapt and change and look for points of value. In my opinion, it's not up to the taxpayer to pay for the costs of proving copyright infringement.

Does a knowledge based economy create jobs?

I know a lot of very smart people currently without work or doing medial jobs for the sake of having a job. I was surprised when hearing a woman working at a cafe talking about the differing OSes between an iPhone and Samsung Galaxy with one of her customers.

I feel horribly sympathetic towards those at the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder. We've effectively removed opportunities for alternatives types of learning - the more hands on approaches like apprenticeships for example. Our current government seems to have given up almost entirely on the manufacturing industry (I would argue that it was the last government that put the nail in that particular coffin though with the free trade agreement with China).

So we need more jobs... not just high end "we're going to be innovative and inventive" but also "I need to be able to feed my family" type jobs. So back to knowledge based economy creating jobs - I think it probably does to some extent - but I don't for a second believe it to be the silver bullet. It does half a job. And it can only create long term jobs if the laws around it are made sane.

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