Our digital age is turning into an IP land-grab

Who's really doing the thieving?

This week the paper is full of stories about copyright and intellectual property. We have more on the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) negotiations (pages 1 and 9) and an in-depth with free software leader Richard Stallman (page 9), who will arrive here in a few days’ time for two weeks of rabble-rousing.

Issues of copyright and intellectual property rarely make the front pages of the mainstream press, but arguably the impact they have on our daily lives is immense — and growing.

All around the world, business models are being challenged by new means of sharing and distributing digital information. The people who have invested in these formerly lucrative businesses are not going to let their revenue streams dry up without a fight.

Arguably they should be putting those efforts into product innovation rather than lobbying and legal fees, but that’s another issue.

So we live in a world where intellectual property rights are not only protected in law but where those protections are being extended all the time. We live in a world, for instance, where it can be illegal to circumvent technological protection mechanisms even to enforce long-standing freedoms such as fair use. We also live in a world where who owns what rights is almost always murky.

A friend in the music business told me about the procedure used for staving off intellectual property claims the industry didn’t like — you know, the ones where artists want to get paid. Say you wrote a song and it turned into a big hit for someone and you thought you’d go along and get your fair share.

The industry then puts you through a mill asking you to establish your ownership of the copyright. This is almost always very hard and very expensive to do. But the music and film industries, and the proprietary software industry for that matter, have lots of lawyers, money and time.

That is how they show their respect for intellectual property when it threatens to appear in their cost lines.

Other artists, artists who like to sample and remix our popular culture either in music or images, are also falling foul of over-avid copyright enforcement. Then there are the innocent bystanders caught in the IP-war crossfire: witness the recent case of a woman who filmed her child dancing to a barely audible Prince track and posted it on YouTube. She didn’t have to wait long for the take-down notice even though this is almost certainly a fair use of the material.

I’m not against copyright or other forms of intellectual property protection, but there is a grave danger our common rights are going to go the same way as common land: disappearing into private ownership. The same way public spaces have become branded spaces. The same way colours have been copyrighted or plants patented.

There are times when the so-called protection of intellectual property is just a cover for theft, a cover for people with lots of lawyers, or even lots of guns, taking property away from people without.

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