Intellectual Property

I am in favour of the protection of intellectual property (IP) rights. It is reasonable for a musician, author, artist or company to be remunerated for the products of their minds, whether individual or collective. Without protection for IP, no one would have any incentive to be creative and produce works that entertain, uplift, contribute to our culture, cure our diseases, or make life simpler and more enjoyable.

However, I do have a problem with the way IP is being protected at the moment. For example, an author writes a book. That book will remain in copyright until seventy years after the author’s death. Why? Because, say the copyright Gestapo, the author’s heirs and their heirs must have a slice of the pie. I see no reason for this because it is unreasonable. I write computer software for a corporate company. My contract includes the boilerplate that cedes copyright in my work to the company, who certainly won’t pay my salary to my heirs for seventy years after I drop off the twig, even if the software I wrote is still in production. I have to buy life insurance if I want my heirs to be taken care of financially after my death, and I fail to see why creative artists should be any different.

A far more reasonable copyright provision would be protection for, say, ten years after the first publication of the work, which would balance the right of the artist to profit from his labours, and then make the work available to those who would not have bought it, but may yet benefit from it.

This pyramid tomb was granted a US patent. Prior art?

Then there is the question of patents. These were conceived with the goal of allowing companies a temporary monopoly on their inventions to allow them to recoup their investment in research, without which there would be no new products, drugs, or whatever is patentable. There were rules as to what inventions could be granted patents. You could not, for example, patent something that was obvious, or which already existed. You could only patent a thing, not an idea, but the boundary between things and ideas has become blurred. Is software a thing or an idea? I would suggest that it is neither. The actual source code is a work that can be protected by copyright, but what it accomplishes is the fulfilment of an idea, it is not a thing that can be patented. Yet we have patent wars between software companies who patent such nonsense as a button that can turn feature ‘x’ on. Firstly buttons are obvious, whether in the context of a computer interface or on the control panel of a machine; and secondly they already exist; and thirdly they are an idea not a thing, yet these patents have been granted in the face of common sense and the law.

With drugs, there is an ethical tightrope: we need patents on pharmaceutical products because without them no one would be prepared to do the research that leads to new treatments, but what of the people suffering from some disease that could be cured by the drug, but who cannot afford the high price asked by the pharmaceutical company? Right now there are people dying of AIDS who could be treated successfully with Anti Retro-Virals (ARVs), but who simply cannot afford them. Perhaps this is where the governments could take responsibility and divert some of the money they pay in bribes, or pack away in their Swiss bank accounts, and do what is right for a change.

And what of protection of the digital products of intellectual activity? When it is trivially easy to make an almost unlimited number of copies of a work, each copy is essentially free to produce, leaving the poor artist with a slice of a zero-sized pie when his work is downloaded free from the internet. It is not possible to stop piracy (for an anti-piracy encryption strategy to work it would have to be impossible to crack, which would mean that legitimate buyers would be unable to use their copies, either), so artists must come up with some other way to monetize their work. Advertising on the download site? Product placement? Public speaking engagements? Musicians can pack the punters into stadiums for concerts, but I doubt an author could fill a squash court of people wanting to hear him read his work.

I don’t pretend to know the answer to this, but I’m sure one will eventually be found. It almost certainly won’t be at the Africa Intellectual Property Forum taking place in Cape Town in April because it looks suspiciously as though that will be an occasion for the USA, through the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), to ram its own ideas down African throats. Here’s the blurb, you decide:

Entitled Africa Intellectual Property Forum: Intellectual Property, Regional Integration and Economic Growth in Africa, this first-of-its kind ministerial level Forum will focus on the Dynamic Role of Intellectual Property Protection and Enforcement in Promoting Knowledge-Based Economies Through Innovation, Trade and Investment. In a truly international effort, the governments of the France, Japan, South Africa, and the United States, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), in collaboration with the African Intellectual Property Organization (OAPI), the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO), and the international private sector, will bring together 600-800 public officials and private IP stakeholders to discuss the integral and critical role of IP in African economic growth through the incentivizing of creation, innovation, trade, and investment.

Creative Commons License
Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License

One Response to Intellectual Property

  1. Con-Tester says:

    Of any legislation that seems overwrought, superfluous and/or unreasonable, one must resort to a favourite lawyers’ chestnut: cui bono? Ten to one, the answer’ll involve a bunch of lawyers themselves at some or other degree of remove…

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