General Chaos

If I had a hammer / I'd copyright and patent it / All over this land

Dave Winer, Lawrence Lessig and others have been having, for lack of a better word, a conversation about patents and copyrights (among other things) as of late. It's one that has to take place for all sorts of reasons, because I think that there's a fundamental disconnect between how we as tech people think of different forms of intellectual property.

I make a living off writing. However, to say that I make my living off copyrights would be a stretch. I am in the work-for-hire world, and my bosses make their money off the value of what freelance writers out there would call the “first global print and electronic rights”–the first printing, in ink and electrons. Once it's in the reader's mailbox, or scrolled off the reader's screen, 99.5% of what they're going to make off my work is already in their bank accounts(or, at least it's passed through it).

The same used to be true of other media. But now media companies want to make more money off lawyers than content creators, apparently. In the process,they''re killing innovation and limiting their future revenue. People–at least the ones media companies care about– will reject new forms of media if they're less accessible than the old, regardless of bells and whistles (HDTV is an example).

There's a line from a song by the Nields “I sold my computer and bought a used acoustic guitar/ and now we'll make the rules…” I suspect that the media companies are only ensuring the extended life of analog tech.

Copyrights can be good–they're the best protection free agents have from corporate media stealing their livelihood. And from a tech perspective, Copyrights aren't especially restrictive to software innovation. You can learn from source code, and in many cases reverse-engineer it, without even coming close to violating copyright. Copyrighting only protects you from someone cutting and pasting your code.

Software patents, on the other hand, are nasty buggers. They lock down not just the form, but the function of software. Case in point–'s “one-click” patent.

Copyrights, pre-Sonny Bono and pre-DMCA, were not especially restrictive to cultural innovation. The public domain was healthy, fair use allowed people to reference works, people could do all sorts of time-shifting and form-shifting of content for personal use, and people could write fan-zines and the like without being threatened with prosecution.

Both copyrights and patents, post-DMCA, are chilling to free speech and infringe on users' well-defined rights of the past. They've paved the road for anti-time and form shifting for personal use, the locking of users into consuming media in a certain way (and with hardware from a certain vendor), and preventing users from becoming anything more than consumers if possible.

The worst part about the whole thing is that the agencies charged with awarding and policing patents and copyrights, are the most underfunded , least well-staffed agencies in the federal government–the Patent and Trademark Office and the Library of Congress. When a kid can get a patent for swinging a swing sideways (and let me tell you, I can demonstrate prior art), just because his dad had $1000 to burn, you know the patent system is totally hosed.


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