Daily Archives: 26 December 2007

Intellectual Property – the big 21st century faultline?

Eqypt are set to pass a law forcing royalties to be paid to, erm, Egypt, every time anyone makes a copy of a pyramid or an ancient Egyptian relic. This presumably means I’ll owe them money every time I press the arrow (^) key. But of course, this isn’t the first time a government has passed a special law to protect a specific piece of intellectual property: after all in the UK we have given Peter Pan protected status specifically with a view to bankrolling the Great Ormond Street Hospital, and who could object to giving money to sick children?

This is a rather extreme example of the what is increasingly emerging as a major faultline in civilisation which seems set to dominate much of the 21st century. On the one hand we have global multi-media empires which look set to exploit – and extend – IP as much as possible. What some economists call “superstar economics” means that a piece of IP – pretty much any piece it seems can be exploited for millions, even billions of euros at a global level. On the other hand, there is the open source movement, the idea that the future lies in collaboration and sharing. Largely voluntary movements such as Creative Commons may seem benign enough, but Bill Gates has already denounced open source as a new form of communism, and beyond the obvious face offs such as Napster, we have yet to see how more sophisticated ideas about opening up other mediums and industries might challenge the status quo. One thing to look out for in my opinion is how the movement for opening up access to public data develops. Already there are rumblings objecting to the idea that people should have free access to something that the government has been flogging to private companies for years. Crown copyright has effectively lined the pockets of companies such as Dod’s for years; what will lobbyists do if large amounts of what companies such as this do suddenly becomes available to every Tom, Dick and Harriet? Somehow I doubt Dod’s is going to take this lying down.

One thing is sure, the traditional industries are feeling insecure and starting to behave in a manner not unlike a cornered animal. The ridiculous behaviour of the Performing Rights Society, described on this blog last month, is far from unique. Buy or rent a DVD, or go to the cinema, and it is now par for the course to essentially accused of theft by the very company you have just increased the coffers of in the form of their insulting and bossy FACT warnings (to be fair, their recent cinema adverts are somewhat gentler and might even be accused of having a sense of humour, if you don’t mind being talked down to by a cartoon rodent).

Over the past few days there have been a number of articles in the press about the music industry (and now MPs) taking a stance against websites such as eBay selling on tickets. We are now to understand eBay and the like as being virtual “pimps” – an analogy which is fine so long as you accept that the same basic description applies to estate agents (indeed any kind of agent) and indeed anyone working as a middle man in any industry (including, erm, record companies).

Harvey Goldsmith is proposing legislation to make it illegal to resell tickets to music gigs along similar lines to the existing legislation that applies to football matches. Yet this legislation is there for a very specific reason: it is designed to prevent football hooligans from buying their way onto their rivals’ terraces. Whether you approve or disapprove of this legislation, its intent is to stop people from being maimed and even killed; Goldsmith is calling for nothing more than the protection against their own gullibility.

Much of what seems to be developing appears to be perfectly legitimate. For example, what’s wrong with creating a futures market for ticket sales? It sounds like a perfectly good service for sports and music fans.

The solution to all this seems to be obvious to me: rather than trying to shut down the auctioneers, who are only providing services at the price people are willing to pay, why not sell all tickets in this way in the first place? The music industry appears to take great delight at how quickly they sell out of mega-gigs, yet all that ensures is that the tickets go to the most enthusiastic, the luckiest and the most organised. The average punter loses out at every turn. Surely auctioning tickets would not only ensure that the company (and artist) gets the right price, but would limit the potential resell value. We don’t need new laws, we just need new business models.

(The music industry in particular doesn’t seem to get market economics. If it isn’t complaining that the value of tickets to gigs is to high, it is complaining that the value of CDs is too low. The CEOs of Sony, EMI et al wouldn’t look out of place in the management board of a tractor factory in Stalin’s Russia)

But it doesn’t end there. Both global patent and copyright laws have been extended in recent decades. The original idea behind such laws appears to have been forgotten and pure greed has taken its place. Globalisation means that the earnings potential from a new idea has massively increased; yet at the same time we’ve artificially increased it further still, and long lives will extend this still further. To take one example, J.K. Rowling, a rich woman who can afford the very best in healthcare, is likely to have a very long life. Let’s assume she lives to 100, in 2065. The copyright on her books will stay with her estate until 2135. That means that her great-great-great grandchildren will still be profiting from their ancestor’s books. Is there really any justification for that? I’m all for an artist’s work being protected, but when a work becomes a global brand, doesn’t there come a point when the money made from it is no longer reflective of that work’s value and more based on the value of the marketing behind it? Doesn’t there come a point where these laws no longer protect creativity but stifle it?

Compare Batman to Robin Hood. Anyone can make a Robin Hood movie; the character is in public domain. To make a Batman film (or comic for that matter), you need the permission of Time-Warner. Who does this serve? Isn’t Batman now an iconic enough figure in popular imagination in such a way that is bigger than any corporation?

It is, I readily acknowledge, a moot point. But I’m less concerned about the here and now than I am about the prospect of a century of corporations owning vast catalogues of intellectual properties archived from the 20th century and trying to find ever more creative ways of exploiting them. As a civilisation, we’ve never had to face such a privatisation of ideas before. Technology will make it easier for corporations such as Disney to take legal action against anyone using their IP without permission – on the web and, without wanting to get too sci-fi here, ultimately in your mind? – yet what moral rights do they have over such cartoon characters that have become part of our folk memory?

It strikes me that all this could take a turn for the much worse and inevitably there will be a backlash. And ultimately this is deadly serious because it goes far beyond books, music and cartoon characters; much of the value of our stocks and shares are rooted in intellectual property; challenging the laws allowing Marvel to keep hold of Spider-Man could have enormous consequences for instance. And that means huge vested interests are at stake here.

As with land, I can’t help but feel that the debates on intellectual property that were raging at the turn of the last century will increasingly be revisited in the not so distant future. At stake is nothing less than who owns our very culture.

Cardboard Conservative

Coming in late I know, but I’m amazed no-one has referred to Grant Shapps’ homelessness escapade the other day in the context of being a cunning stunt. “Cunning stunt” is a collection of letters I have repeatedly associated with the brains behind the Tory’s Ealing Southall campaign this year, and it’s nice to have a reminder in this period of goodwill to all men.