17 January 2009

Copyright Refrom

Maybe now is a good time as any to clarify, that I'm not an opponent of copyright in principle. I'm not necessarily an opponent of trademarks and patents either. But in my opinion laws and precedent setting court cases have gone overboard in quite a few cases.

Intellectual property laws - like any other laws - should balance the benefits of society overall with the rights of individuals. When that balance is disturbed too much, bad things are prone to happen in a country.

For example, if intellectual property laws are so tight, that only a few companies can create new products and services, because everyone else gets sued for for building a new idea on a protected old idea, then new products and services will be created less and less, since many really great new ideas come from new companies, not established ones.

Similarly, great art has been built on the shoulders of previous generations of art. For example, how many Disney classics have been built on the shoulders of the Grimm brothers and others?

A second thought, is, that if a good part, or even a majority of a population routinely breaks the law in a significantly punishable way, a society arguably becomes something like a police state. Since obviously not everyone can be thrown in prison, only those people get prosecuted for their law breaking who don't have enough "friends in high places". Ask anyone who has actually lived in a seriously oppressed country, how brutal that is. Even if you don't go to prison, but live in constant fear to have a good chunk of your possessions taken away, because you have to pay large fines, it creates a similar environment.

So the irony is, that the so called democracies seem to be working their way down a rather slippery slope towards something rather backwards and dark. And that concerns me.

While I have never participated in the file sharing world of movies and music (maybe because by the time that started being possible, I could afford to buy the stuff - in my days we taped things off the radio!), I don't think a situation where a significant majority of a generation is essentially criminal is a good thing for society. And older generations telling younger one's just to stop doing something doesn't really seem to work all that well.


My very simple argument is, that since commercial, artistic, technological and knowledge cycles seem to be happening in shorter time frames in our current world, copyrights and patents should probably expire sooner, rather than being lengthened. (Trademarks are a bit of a different thing, and I've not observed quite as much across the board nonsense in court cases, although some corporations have tried to trademark letters of the alphabet, numbers, colors and shapes - and occasionally some court has sided with them, only to be overturned later like in the case of guitar maker Gibson going after PRS.)

So rather than shortening the cycles of copyrights, there seems to be a copyright extension law passed in the US, every time Mickey Mouse is just about to become public domain. And then the hoards of industry lobbyists and US ambassadors are let loose on the rest of the world to make the applicable laws in other countries resemble US law, like we experienced in Canada just in 2008. I was depressed that our minister in charge of such issues seemed to favor closed door meetings with such lobbyists over public forums.

So I support a re-thinking of what appropriate intellectual property protection should be in a modern society. What should be "protected" and for how long needs some really good thinking by some really smart and not too selfish people. Whatever the right answer may be, this topic should NOT be discussed in private lunches and closed door meetings, but in public forums.

While maybe not quite up there with drafting a constitution, it is an important enough topic, that lawmakers and ministers and secretaries of whatever should really treat this topic as the foundation for commerce and art in our modern post-industrial societies. And I would argue, that it's therefore not far behind a constitution in importance.

I'm not an intellectual property specialist, but I'm working and playing in areas deeply affected by such laws, so I do care.

I'll leave it at that, since there are many more qualified sources on the web for reading up on these issues than my blog. Search terms like "copyright reform" are a good starting point.

In the mean-time many of us have decided to work and play in what we hope is a preview of a more wide-spread environment. We don't use the stuff that others don't want us to use, but we're creating our own pools of music, images, movies, writing, software and more that we share with each other in various ways to varying degrees.

It's ok, Disney and Sir Paul - keep you mouse and your Let it Be forever. We may just forget them, because you are the only one's controlling who builds upon them. But we still remember Snowwhite and the Toccata and Fugue in Dm, arguably because others could build upon them. Remixing is okay! :-)

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