An astonishingly large number of people seem to think that artificial constructs like patent and copyright law are part of the natural order of things. Furthermore, they labour under the illusion that these laws operate to the benefit of society.
They believe that intellectual property is like physical property, and that it can be bought and sold and stolen. Under this line of thinking, you can “own” an idea.
An entirely different point of view, to which I happen to subscribe, is that the whole concept of intellectual property is flawed, and that society is much better served by the free flow of ideas with attribution. Look up “copy left” (a play on “copyright”), or read Kevin Kelly’s seminal works on the subject.
This is particularly so in the digital age, when content can be replicated endlessly at no cost, and when copyright and patent laws are used shamelessly by a decidedly uncreative class of middle men to protect their outmoded business models.
The pure silliness of patent law is evident in the now-celebrated Apple and Samsung case. Exactly what is Samsung is alleged to have “stolen”?
- Like Apple, Samsung allowed users to enlarge documents by tapping the screen.
- They incorporated “bouncing back” when you reach the bottom of the screen (the “rubber band”).
- Samsung made a distinction between single finger and multi-finger actions (e.g. zooming with a two-finger “pinch” gesture.
- Samsung infringed on the shape of and the colour of the iPhone (and was found guilty of separate patent violation for black and white iPhones).
- Some Samsing icons were similar to Apple’s, and had similar rounded edges
That’s right, folks. Each of these features was patented by Apple, allowed under the patent laws, and led to damages against Samsung of over a billion dollars.
Little wonder the patent laws are so easily held up to ridicule. Add to these absurdities the fact that it remains illegal to share copies of movies and music, when it is so easy to do so, and you can start to see why the whole edifice of intellectual property is rotten.
I have been writing about this stuff for ten years or more. Every time I do so I get people saying that we must have copyright and patents and the like, to reward creativity. This is simply untrue, and demonstrably so. The system is used to perpetuate inequality, prop up obsolete business models, and stifle creativity.
The greatest writers, composers and artists of the classical era operated with no copyright protection at all. That never stopped Shakespeare writing, or Bach composing, or Michelangelo painting. The difference is that all these artists, and most others, worked on a performance-based model – create the work, get paid once, move on to the next one.
That is still the way most musicians, writers and painters make their living today. The proportion that get a significant amount of their income from royalties is miniscule. The real money goes to the “industry” that has grown up to extract money from consumers through a complex distribution system that digital technology has now rendered irrelevant.
My favourite comment on the subject came out of a US newspaper I read recently. “It’s as if the horse and buggy owners tried to sue Henry Ford.” Quite so. And the horse has bolted.