A Hitch-Hiker’s guide to copyright

Those who know me know that Copyright – and Copywrong – are hot-buttons for me. I was considering writing an all-singing all-dancing article about Copyright… until I discovered this piece, which says it so much better than I ever could.

Here are some comments from me…

As a point of semantics, the term “Intellectual Property” is a misnomer, as it implies ownership, which is not the case. While works can be copyrighted and inventions can be patented (which is, incidentally, why the term “Software Patent” is an oxymoron, since software is written, not invented). In both cases this privilege is temporary – “they are loaned, not owned”

The original purpose of Copyright and Patent laws was to protect the Public Domain from Corporate interests – and not the other way round. It did this by placing limits on the “ownership” of inventions and works. To find a compromise that balances the needs of the inventors and artisans to put food on the table while providing for the public good.

For the past three decades, however, middlemen such as Patent Hoarders and Content Publishers have been busy rewriting the copyright laws to suit themselves… at the expense of the rest of us.

As a result we now have a series of laws that benefit well-heeled, deep-pocketed hard-lobbying corporations with patient portfolios that they can cross-license, and trained attack lawyers to protect them. Individual inventors, who can afford neither, are left out in the cold.

Paradoxically, these laws have the effect of stifling innovation. Let me provide some examples.

  • Walt Disney would not have been able to make “Snow White”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “The Little Mermaid”, etc, had today’s copyright laws been in force in his day.
  • Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard could not have created the company that bears their name if they had spent the bulk of their time and efforts fighting patent battles instead of creating and inspiring world-class engineering excellence.
  • The IBM PC would not have become the dominant platform if clone-makers were unable to reverse-engineer and build a better BIOS – an act which would, if done today, probably fall foul of the DMCA.

Technology is neither the problem nor the solution. Legislation is not the solution either – at least not the legislation that we currently have. This is because copyright, paradoxically, is not about the right to copy; it is about the right of commercial exploitation. Breaking the protection on a DVD so that I can watch it on my PDA while sitting in the parking lot waiting for my wife is a felony, thanks to the vagaries of the DMCA; yet I believe that no-one would consider it immoral, as I am not depriving the movie company of the right to make a sale. I recommend Jessica Littman’s book, “Digital Copyright”, which gives this matter a far more comprehensive treatment than I ever could.

I am not advocating anarchy, but a return to the original intent of copyright – to reward creators and not middlemen; to encourage innovation, not stifle it, to protect original creations, but and to limit that protection so that such ideas can be passed into the public domain for the enrichment of others.

For it is through creative individuals – and not lawyers, politicians or middlemen – that a future America will stand or fall on the world stage.

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