Sex, SOPA and Socialism – the copyright conundrum

Sex, SOPA and Socialism – the copyright conundrum

Copyright has been in the news lots lately. Google’s acquisition of Motorola’s patents, Kodak’s patent fire sale and of course, closer to home, Tradeshift’s Christian Lanng’s attack on OB10 over one of their copyrights.

Then there’s SOPA which everyone reading this needs to be concerned about.

Purchasing Insight logoSOPA

Commentary on SOPA is all over the internet. It’s intentions are good. It intends to stop the pirating of copyright material and is sponsored most heavily bythe entertainment industry. Despite it being US legislation, it would have a global impact.

It is massively flawed. Like the ludicrous French law that came into effect in 2010, it places a wholly disproportionate weight on the rights of publishers, the economic impact of piracy claimed by its supporters is fanciful and exaggerated and the proposed penalties are absurd.

But, like I say, its intentions are good. I’ve never lost sleep over a billionaire media mogul’s piracy losses but I do support his right, in principle, to protect what he owns.

It’s not just the entertainment industry that is fixated with copyright.  Analysts reckon that the $12.5 billion that Google spent on Motorola was all about acquiring its patents to build a patent arsenal  to support its fight in the increasingly litigious mobile marketplace.

It seems that patent law suits are in vogue. The BBC reported recently that since the new year:

  • The Spanish tablet maker NT-K filed claims against Apple accusing the US firm of “extortion”; this followed NT-K’s successful defense of claims that it had infringed an Apple design
  • LG and Microsoft agreed a patent licensing deal that allows LG to use technologies involved in Google’s Android system that Microsoft claims to own
  • Oracle offered to drop patent infringement claims against Google if US courts agreed to speed up its copyright claim against the search firm
  • Apple brought two new design lawsuits against Samsung in Germany relating to tablet computers and smartphones
  • Microsoft and Motorola Mobility asked the International Trade Commission to review its preliminary ruling that Motorola’s Android devices infringed four Microsoft patents

Tradeshift and OB10

A few weeks ago, Christian Lanng was somewhat critical of OB10 about their stance on patents and openness. You can read the article here.

We can all understand Christian Lanng’s beef. OB10 holds a patent on some aspects of the transmission and translation of electronic invoices. They were amongst the pioneers who were there first and they’d have been mad not to protect their intellectual property. But for new players in the market there is a natural fear that now, because of this fairly broad patent, they could face a law suit for doing what today looks like fairly innocuous things with B2B transactions.

But copyright laws, far from being the enemy of startups, are of enormous value to them. Can you imagine what the prospects for a startup would be if big multinational companies could steal bright ideas from the new innovators with impunity? Startups would die before anyone knew about them.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t use the law to protect your genuinely innovative ideas but at the same time expect to take a free ride on the shoulders of giants.

But there is something very, very wrong about our current copyright laws

When ideas have sex

Matt Ridley, author of the Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, gave a great TED presentation on the concept of ideas having sex.

In essence he argues that  humans have thrived, not because they can communicate or fashion tools or stand upright. They have thrived because they have learned to trade. Adam Smith made exactly the same point to explain the merits, as he saw them, of capitalism but Ridley explains how the exchange of knowledge and ideas to create new ideas and greater knowledge is akin to sexual reproduction.

Matt argues very powerfully that we are all, collectively, better off when we share ideas. The more we trade, the more we prosper.

So why doesn’t it work?

Our copyright laws are designed to attach ownership to ideas. That should in theory encourage the trade of ideas. If you own an idea you can trade an idea. But the laws don’t have this effect. They stifle the trade of ideas and as a consequence they stifle innovation.

Albert Einstein, arguing in favor of socialism observed about capitalism:  “We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor — not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules”  He called it “economic anarchy”.

Reductio ad absurdum

Copyright conventions and legislation have evolved over time with the same good intentions that SOPA has. But we’ve arrived in a ridiculous place. The traditional music distribution business doesn’t fit the 21st century. To fix this, SOPA would have us dismantle the new digital world.

It doesn’t matter how well intentioned and rational and fair you try to be. When you get to a point in the evolution of your thinking that is absurd, you know that something’s wrong and there’s certainly something’s wrong with copyright.

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