As a sign of how intellectual property rights have become one of the hottest elements in the battle for control of the internet, look no further than the pile of lawsuits piling up against Facebook as it prepares for a $100bn stock market flotation.
Yahoo has alleged that Facebook has infringed up to 20 technology patents used in online advertising, messaging and social networking. The legal wranglings may not blow the Facebook juggernaut off course, but are a timely reminder to everybody that everything that is used, made, invented and created belongs to somebody and has potentially to be paid for in every respect.
Although an old concept, only in the past decade or so has the term ‘intellectual property rights’ come into common usage. Only now is it climbing up the political agenda in the face of open access on the web and all that that has brought with it.
The Statute of Monopolies (1623) gave rise to the laws of patent and the Statute of Anne (1710) was the origin of copyright legal protection which the world still has and enforces to various degrees and energies.
Exclusive Legal Rights
Intellectual property rights apply to creations of the human mind, which give to the creator/originator exclusive rights of ownership under the law. These rights are over intangible assets, compared with actual inventions like machines. However, they apply to musical. literary and artistic works.
Take a book from a library and the author gets a share of ‘Public Lending Right’, the money paid by libraries to authors, on top of payments to the publishers and printers.
Buy or download music and a proportion of what you pay is for the right to enjoy the creativity of the composer. And so on, in a well established and understood routine.
Infringe a trademark associated with a design and/or product, and you could be in for hefty penalties from a court together with compensations to the owner of the intellectual rights.
The photocopier made it more difficult to enforce. If copyrighted material could be copied in seconds and distributed, the payment to originators had to be enforced by law.
The Internet Altered It All
The internet changed it absolutely. Now copyrighted data could be swapped instantly and relentlessly. Learned journals to poems, songs to ads, film clips to whole movies can be sent anywhere without a penny changing hands. The creators get nothing unless agreements and some legal steps are in place to safeguard copyright.
What changed with the technological ability to bypass intellectual property rights, was an attitude. People nowadays want access, free and unfettered, to data of every conceivable type and they want it circulated, swapped, published now. Free, gratis, costing nothing. And of course, they want it NOW.
This is very evident in schools and universities, particularly of the cyber or virtual kind. Scholarly materials written and published in any form can now be used for nothing. Some publishers sell on subscription their learned papers, research evidence and high-powered books. It only takes one person to start spreading the material, for such gates of payment to be rendered useless.
Once something is publicly released, even if courts ordered it back, or had things taken offline, the fact is having been released, it is lost as intellectual property of the creator. Once a film has been pirated, however poor the copy, it is difficult for the owners of the original master-version, however good, to benefit from ownership and licensing out to the full.
Now even inventors are despairing. Michael Wilcox from Wales spent £150,000 (and £100,000 Government grant) developing and patenting technology for a colour printing process, only to see other firms stealing his ideas.
He said that large companies were not keen to talk to patent holders, because they could get away with just lifting ideas and did ‘not fear the consequences if taking it for free’. Wilcox is demanding that patent theft should invoke the same penalties as copyright breaches, that is, potential criminal proceedings.
He thinks that would be a deterrent and some protection for inventors, as he set light to his patent in a show of anger outside Parliament in March 2012 to highlight the plight of all inventors.
British bagless vacuum inventor James Dyson has long railed against copyright piracy from overseas. Unless it is brought under control, new products will be not worth dreaming up, experimenting with, developing and marketing.
That applies to almost every field where new innovation is demanded, from furniture, domestic appliances, medicines and drugs to cars and computer technology. The brains behind change, the thinkers of the unthinkable, need rewarding fully. Or they wont bother any more.
The person who wrote your favourite song, music, musical, play, TV or film script, who designed the sets and costumes, who wrote your children’s stories should have their intellectual contributions acknowledged so they can live and create again.
If anyone can come up with a foolproof way of enabling that in the age of instant media, he or she will make a fortune. Unless somebody nicks the idea.
Daily Telegraph, Richard Tyler, Inventor fury… 8 March 2012.
Image: Union 20