Posted tagged ‘intellectual property’

Copyright vs. The Law

September 10, 2010

Techdirt points us to an interesting conflict going on in Sweden:

The Swedish National Police have been attempting to build a database which allows them to match shoe-prints found at crime scenes with the type of shoes that made them. In order to build the database, they have simply been downloading pictures of shoe treds from the internet. Now, some shoe companies are claiming that those images are their intellectual property and cannot be taken without permission.

The police claim that the law lets them ignore copyright in solving crimes, but an intellectual property professor quoted in the article notes that such an exemption only applies in the direct police investigation of a specific crime — not for the sake of building up a general database. The professor suggests that this appears to be a clear violation of Swedish copyright laws.

Fine points of Swedish copyright law aside (for the time being), what’s interesting here are the two potential ways to approach the dispute:

If we trust that the motive of the police is to protect the life and property of the citizenry, then we can see the conflict over the database as taking root in a claim by commercial brands that the protection of their intellectual property in the abstract (it should be safe to assume that this database will not result in any real economic damage) should trump the ability of the police to solve actual crimes.

If we’re feeling more cynical about state power, we could view this as a conflict between copyright and state power. Which source of authority is exerts more influence: the corporation’s ownership of it’s intellectual property or the state’s ability to surveil its citizens?

Open Universities, pt. 2

August 25, 2010

In our previous post we discussed the possibility that web-casting academic lectures could transform universities in some way, possibly making academic information accessible to more people outside the university, or helping to keep lecturers honest and accountable. On Monday, the New York Times published this story about attempts by humanities scholars to use the internet to transform the process of peer review:

some humanities scholars have begun to challenge the monopoly that peer review has on admission to career-making journals and, as a consequence, to the charmed circle of tenured academe. They argue that in an era of digital media there is a better way to assess the quality of work. Instead of relying on a few experts selected by leading publications, they advocate using the Internet to expose scholarly thinking to the swift collective judgment of a much broader interested audience.

So the idea here is not that digital information systems will help make education more accessible, but rather that they could be used to allow a broader segment of the public to weigh in on key academic questions: Which research findings are interesting, convincing or valid? Can research that stands the test of peer review by experts hold up in the court of public opinion? In other words, the process of internet reader review could be use to break down the social power and exclusivity of expertise, one important step in opening the intellectual commons.

How the Fashion Industry Works Without Copyright

June 11, 2010

digital books: when it rains, it pours.

March 16, 2010

The recent release of David Shield’s book Reality Hunger: a Manifesto (see here and here) comes on the heels of increasing controversy in Europe over Helene Hegemann’s literary debut Axolotl Roadkill (see here). Hegemann is already caught up in an intellectual property scandal; we’ll see what happens to Shields. Both books take a recombinant, “remix” approach to writing, cobbling together excerpts of other people’s writing with their own bits of text. How very contemporary. The idea of remixing as a unique mode of cultural production and the attendant issues of intellectual property that always seem to follow it have now made it into the book market.

While consumers read literary mash-ups like last year’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, media giants like Amazon, Sony and Barnes & Noble are competing to get the reading public hooked on portable hand-held digital reading devices: Kindle, Reader and Nook. Consequently, the publishing industry is already embroiled in typical efforts to protect corporate property: conflict over ebook file formats and which devices can read which formats, as well as concern over the proliferation of ebooks as a hot commodity for file sharing.

At the same time, but getting less media attention, has been Google’s ongoing commercial/legal negotiation with various publishers, universities and other authorities as they expand the ever-growing Google Books project. The project makes a massive amount of material available to the public, online, much of it for free, but many books and other printed materials are still not fully usable or readable thanks to pressure from publishers.

There are many things that are controversial about Google Books. For one, why should we trust a private corporation with the next generation of media services we would normally expect from public libraries? If Google cuts a deal with publishers, much of the content would likely become pay-to-play – and then, publishers would have some say in the cost and accessibility of their products. Even if Google was committed to keeping user access free and open, other issues might arise, too.

Nicholas Sarkozy, Jean-Noël Jeanneney and others close to the French National Library have argued that Google books will only speed the trend of cultural globalization as Americanization, and place control of books belonging to France’s national “patrimony” in non-French hands. Other times, their line seems to be pan-European. But whether they argue for a French digital library (like Gallica), or a European Union version (like Europeana), the point is to mount a public, European challenge to American corporate digitization projects like Google’s.

These varied anecdotes suggest that we’re witnessing an interesting moment of transformation in books, and in the ways that people talk about, think about, buy and sell, and fight over, books. With so much intellectual content and so much money at stake, this dialogue, now fairly widespread, will only get hotter.

Prelinger Manifesto: On the Virtues of Preexisting Material

February 23, 2010

Rick Prelinger, a force in internet archiving, is also the author of this useful manifesto On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, in which he outlines 14 Principles for using preexising works to make new work:

1 Why add to the population of orphaned works?
2 Don’t presume that new work improves on old
3 Honor our ancestors by recycling their wisdom
4 The ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful
5 Dregs are the sweetest drink
6 And leftovers were spared for a reason
7 Actors don’t get a fair shake the first time around, let’s give them another
8 The pleasure of recognition warms us on cold nights and cools us in hot summers
9 We approach the future by typically roundabout means
10 We hope the future is listening, and the past hopes we are too
11 What’s gone is irretrievable, but might also predict the future
12 Access to what’s already happened is cheaper than access to what’s happening now
13 Archives are justified by use
14 Make a quilt not an advertisement

Brooks on the Attitudinal Health of “Protocol Economies”

December 22, 2009

Today’s NYTimes features an op-ed by David Brooks that offers an alternative take on the changing notions of ownership I brought up in my post a few days ago. Brooks’ frames this as a transition from an economy of physical things (his corn and steel, my bicycle) to an economy of “protocols”:

A software program is a protocol for organizing information. A new drug is a protocol for organizing chemicals. Wal-Mart produces protocols for moving and marketing consumer goods. Even when you are buying a car, you are mostly paying for the knowledge embedded in its design, not the metal and glass.

Brooks then goes on to argue, referencing a new book by Arnold Kling (of the Cato Institute) and Nick Schulz (of AEI), that the success of a protocol economy “depends on its ability to invent and embrace new protocols.” And what is it that allows economies to nurture this ability?

Protocols are intangible, so the traits needed to invent and absorb them are intangible, too. First, a nation has to have a good operating system: laws, regulations and property rights.


Second, a nation has to have a good economic culture. “From Poverty to Prosperity” [ed., a new book by Kling and Schulz] includes interviews with major economists, and it is striking how they are moving away from mathematical modeling and toward fields like sociology and anthropology.

What really matters, Edmund S. Phelps of Columbia argues, is economic culture — attitudes toward uncertainty, the willingness to exert leadership, the willingness to follow orders. A strong economy needs daring consumers (Phelps says China lacks this) and young researchers with money to play with (Romer notes that N.I.H. grants used to go to 35-year-olds but now they go to 50-year-olds).

A protocol economy tends toward inequality because some societies and subcultures have norms, attitudes and customs that increase the velocity of new recipes while other subcultures retard it. Some nations are blessed with self-reliant families, social trust and fairly enforced regulations, while others are cursed by distrust, corruption and fatalistic attitudes about the future. It is very hard to transfer the protocols of one culture onto those of another.

So, according to Brooks, successful economies must quickly adopt new protocols, and the two most important factors in being able to adopt protocols quickly is to develop strong intellecual property rights and then to have inate anthropological characteristics that will develop strong leaders and eager followers, all arranged into self-reliant families. In short, Brooks takes a Randian, social Darwinist perspective on the global information economy. Those who excel in such economies do so because they originate from superior cultures and are bolstered by regulations which prevent the untermenschen from ransacking their protocols (which would, one assumes, weaken the incentive for futher protocol development). This is a proposal for a Bell Curve of the information economy.

On a related note, Arnold Kling got himself into a little scandal last February, when he suggested that Obama’s stimulus plan was actually “a reparations bill” (additional commentary here). Unintentionally as it may have been, Kling draws a very neat line between the ethics of slavery and colonialism and opposition to the so-called Socialism of government-run social services.

In any case, ignoring for the time being the fact that we all still rely very much on things like food and petroleum, not just “protocols,” Brooks’ logic (or the logic he takes from Kling, Schulz, et al) also fits quite nicely into a Hayekian/Trickle-Down worldview wherein the concentration of resources in the hands of the few somehow ultimately translates into prosperity for the masses.

As such, Brooks’ argument seems to have nothing to do with changing systems of value and ownership in the protocol age, except in that it seeks to justify the imposition of artifical scarcity on digital resources in order to preserve the same old justifications for enclosure that existed in those old-fashioned physical economies.

Who Owns Science? Part 2: the Bayh-Dole Act

December 18, 2009

In the United States, the question of who owns science was given a loud and clear answer in 1980 by Senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole. Their “Bayh-Dole Act” allowed businesses and non-profit organizations to retain private, patent-style rights to control innovations and discoveries, even discoveries developed using federal funding. This effectively privatized large parts of big medicine and the military industrial complex. It also created a new academic trend: universities across the country created offices of technology transfer, which were responsible for surveying research being done and looking for ways to snatch up innovations and take them to market. This greatly accelerated a trend brewing since World War Two: universities began to rely more and more on private sector profitability for their funding. Ask any graduate student in the sciences who funds his/her education, and you’ll find many with private sector grants. It also encouraged another trend: the question of what topics should be researched became increasingly shaped by what is profitable. Because laboratories and experiments are often so expensive, private sector funders have little incentive to invest unless they think results could be profitable. Hence basic research in science, guided by the latest trends in the field, now takes a back seat to research that is more likely or more certain to generate profits.