A little over a week ago, I went through one of my periodic episodes of local media exposure in the papers and on radio. I was asked to say my piece about the recent “Internet strike” by sites like Wikipedia and Reddit, who were protesting proposed US legislation intended to curb out-of-country internet activity that violated American copyright and patent laws.
It is not my attention to use this space to reiterate what I already said elsewhere. (For the record, it was that the two American bills – SOPA and PIPA – were bad and dishonest legislation, and should be of concern Canadians because our politicians are about as digitally bone-headed as theirs).
Instead, I want to address one small, personal issue, and then a larger, more world-general issue, that arose for me from debate around those two bills.
First, on the personal level, I was unsettled by being named, in both press and radio, as “Rick Steele of the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre.”
That designation caused me trouble for two reasons: First, the mention of the Technology Innovation Centre is out of date – I now work in the Technology Innovation program of the Yukon Research Centre. Second, my comments on the two pieces of legislation in question were personal utterances, not expressions of opinion on behalf of the Yukon Research Centre.
I am always careful, in this column, to avoid any confusion between my activities as a small town columnist and my activities as an employee of Yukon College. Perhaps, in the heat of the conversation I was then engaged in with the press, I did not do enough to make clear the capacity in which I was speaking. My bad.
Given the controversial title and content of this particular column, that source-alert is of more than perfunctory importance, as I now move on to the larger, more important question that came to my mind as the “Internet strike” developed and bore its fruit.
This is me talking, not the company I happen to work for.
It struck me that the whole debate about intellectual property rights and the public right to information is probably on the brink of becoming moot and irrelevant – because copyright and patent laws are becoming irrelevant to the new marketplace of ideas.
Both the Stop Offshore Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protection of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) are lame and ill-considered attempts by the US government to alter an economic reality that is facing American industry: the rising economic powers of the world, especially China, are not going to agree to play the West’s ponderous, corrupt and empty game of intellectual property law.
They are not so much violating copyright and patent law as abolishing those things by imperial indifference.
And, whatever we might think of Chinese political and business practices, the collapse of the existing intellectual property regime may not be such a bad thing.
Nobody except the most rabid leftist libertarian is going to deny that people and organizations that come up with interesting new ideas, products, songs or stories have a right to expect some fair economic recompense for the time and imagination they invested in doing those things.
But it does not follow that the copyright and patent rules currently agreed upon (more or less) by the “developed” nations actually do anything to stimulate or reward personal or corporate inventiveness, or to provide any guarantee that innovators, artists or inventors will get a fair economic return for their time and talent.
The chief reward-recipients of the current intellectual property management system, in fact, are lawyers, big commercial and arts-media corporations, and the lobby groups representing the interests of those parties.
Most patents on file at the US or Canadian patent office, for instance, are deadwood that will never see the commercial light of day; but the patent offices and patent lawyer firms run through an obscene amount of money developing and filing them, because the filing system is so lucratively hyper-complicated and financially bloated.
Furthermore, even if a person succeeds in filing a commercially viable patent, that patent is really only as tenable as his or her financial ability to defend it in court. Nobody gets arrested by the police for patent violations; the holder of the patent has to file a civil suit an prove that the violation has in fact occurred.
Similarly, copyright laws really do very little to protect the interests of writers, artists, or musicians – unless they happen to be very famous and influential. The serious money in book publishing, music publishing or movie production goes to the big companies that handle the distribution of the product, not to the creative people who actually make the product.
The proponents of the SOPA and PIPA laws who profess to be advocating for the small shop whose clothing line or wristwatch designs are being compromised by foreign “knock-offs” are really being hypocritical and ingenuous. The real powers moving the proposed bills are the lobbies for big pharma, big media, and high tech.
Of course, the fact that our intellectual property laws are lousy, and that the current advocates for those laws are so flagrantly dishonest and self-serving, does not make piracy and knock-offs any more morally defensible.
In the age of computerized production, rapid, cheap container shipping, and digital downloads, we need to evolve new international systems to make sure artists and innovators get reasonable reward for their labours.
What those new systems of reward and punishment might look like remains to be seen, and
warrants a lot more attention than it is presently receiving; but we are not going to discover those new systems and approaches by building paper walls of legalistic self-deception between us and the new, real world.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.