Can you imagine that copyright and intellectual property law used to be a tool to protect the lone inventor from having his ideas stolen by big business? Oh how the tables have turned. The news this week has been positively bristling with uses and abuses of copyright law to enable industrial giants to win power and influence over their competitors. Google, through their not quite yet subsidiary Motorola, have threatened to block the sale of nearly all Microsoft’s products in Germany over a video codec, yet another judge speaks out against the illegality of the US’s takedown of Megaupload and of course Pirate Bay is going to be wiped off the face of the UK web within weeks.
We should never be surprised when a capitalist does what is quite obviously wrong in order to do what’s right for their business. If companies are going to trade petty legal threats with eachother, then to a certain extent we have to just let them, even if those legal costs eventually get passed to the consumer in higher prices. But when the vampire hacks of corporate law begin setting legal precedents against free speech, against a life free from surveillance and against companies which are ultimately more dynamic and more innovative than their globalised counterparts, we should stand up and make our displeasure known. Before the means for making our protest are erased from the web entirely.
The Motorola versus Microsoft case is a great example of the lifecycle of a corporation. Motorola, a predominantly communications company since 1928, were for a time one of the largest mobile phone manufacturers and made billions selling ranges like the RAZR. But overexposure to a crowded mobile market meant that since around 2008 they’ve been struggling to turn a profit and began to do what all companies do when they feel their wallets pinched, start behaving like an asshole.
Motorola has a rather wide suite of patents and copyrights, many of which have since become an industry standard so are subject to special rules. Because the technology is essential to operating in the global market the licences have to be granted but the fees must be Fair, Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory (FRAND). In the Microsoft case, Motorola decided that its two video encoding algorithms were worth 2.25% of the sales price of Windows, the Xbox, Internet Explorer and Windows Media player, Microsoft disagree.
It’s not as if Motorola is the only one guilty of using their patent library to strongarm their competitors. In some sense this battle is coming to a head now because Apple and Microsoft have been scalping Google for royalties from the sale of Android phones, and if you go back a little further because Google, via Motorola want a slice of all sales of the iPhone. They’re all as guilty as each other.
The real shame is that whereas the giant companies are demanding billions of pounds from eachother, the lowly programmers and technicians who actually designed those products stay on a basic wage. It doesn’t do much for the creative spirit when your R&D team know they’ll receive only the most minimal rewards for the work they put into the company. It’s not even as if copyright law really works for the smaller companies either, more often than not they’ll end up subsumed into the corporate machine rather than face the astronomical legal costs that their established competitors can rain down upon them.
You can see this innovation stifling dynamic in the Pirate Bay switch-off. A monument to the colossal greed of the entertainment industry, which to listen to their whinging you’d imagine was on its last legs but in fact whose profits have risen year on year, despite the global recession. The block isn’t going to work, it’s too easy to circumvent, the entertainment industry still offers a crappy DRM locked product and there are always going to be people who want to steal.
I’d vouch for the idea that it’s not really the downloading that the industry is going after at all. After all there are still millions of people that have never illegally downloaded anything and they tend to have a lot more cash. No, it’s what Pirate Bay are only just beginning to get into that is far more dangerous to the entertainment industry’s future survival.
A less well known fact, to the general public at least, is that Pirate Bay are getting into promotion. A recent competition for independent film makers and musicians got over 5000 entries, the winners got huge amounts of free promotion just from association with the website. George Barnett got over 4,000 new Facebook fans and had his video views 85,000 times in just a few days. Crucially promotion through Pirate Bay cuts out the middleman. No labels roping you into an exploitative contract, just talent. It’s bands and film makers being able to make it in the world without them that really terrifies the entertainment industry. Copyright happens to be the only political and legal lever they have to try and wipe the competition off the face of the earth and if they set a legal precedent for blocking free speech then who cares.
Increasingly Intellectual Property is just a tool for corporations to play silly buggers with eachother. A way to take the hard work of their poorly rewarded employees, usually paid for by some state subsidy on R&D, and wreak havoc with it. Racking up huge legal fees in tit-for-tat court cases, mangling and swallowing up the fledglings who’ll one day out compete them and ultimately starving off their industry of the very innovation they’ll need to survive.
This isn’t just an issue of copyright although it certainly contributes, its more of an emergent property of big business. I for one say burn them all to the ground, if human nature has taught me anything it’s that something better will come along to a take its place.