Rethinking Intellectual Property Rights

“Apple has been engaged in heated legal battles around the world claiming that Android smartphones and tablets infringe on its patents. Android loyalists see the legal attacks as a desperate, oppressive move by Apple to stifle competition, but perhaps the success of Android is a function of the ways it “borrows” Apple intellectual property.

According to leaked excerpts from the Steve Jobs biography which will be officially released tomorrow, Jobs is quoted saying, “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”

  • What If Steve Jobs Is Right?, By Tony Bradley,  Content of PC World, Displayed on MSN Canada on October 24, 2011

To understand the importance of Intellectual Property arguments, let us look at something we all understand. Let us look at the book. The book or the codex is a remarkable piece of technology. For it has been used for over 1,000 years to keep knowledge. Depending on the language, it can be read from left to right or right to left, it has been the most portable way of accessing knowledge from most of recorded time. Now imagine that that piece of technology was owned by someone.

I am not talking about the text or the knowledge, I am talking about the way that pieces of paper are bound to a spine. In numerical order, as suggested by the table of contents, those pages make up a single object. The spine is connected to the cover and may be a dust jacket. It is a piece of technology that we are taught to use. Either our parents or a teacher explains the meaning of the letters. The vowels and consonants are ordered in a specific way to form words. When the words are read in order the words make sentences and so on and so forth. Imagine someone had owned this way of disseminating information.

They would charge a fee to explain it, a fee to use the system and a fee for each book created. These fees would be above and beyond the knowledge held in those books. These fees would be paid the inventor of the codex. One can go on with this idea and realize how ridiculous it is. However, this is how modern computer companies treat their technology.

Very few ideas in computers are public domain. Or put differently, very few computer ideas are not owned. For example, let us take the programming language called “HTML”. It is the basis for every website. It is used by all computers including those with Windows, Linux, Apple, Palm, RIM and Android operating systems. This programming language is universal because the owners of the language have allowed it to be in the public domain. Or put differently, HTML is free to use. This is why we all use and view webpages like a newspaper. Just like the book, the public domain feature has allowed HTML to become a global tool.

The same could not be said of the ePublishing industry. Every company has a format. Even though there are two universal formats, Adobe’s PDF and International Digital Publishing Forum’s ePUB, many device companies are trying to corner the market, so that their customers have to go back to their “home company” for additional content. Therefore, Palm has a proprietary format. (i.e. .pdb) and so does Amazon (i.e. .azw).  Sony and Microsoft have two proprietary formats each (i.e. Sony’s  .lrf; .lrx; Microsoft’s  .lit, .chm).  And these are just the well-known formats.

So as has happened to me, if I bought one proprietary formatted eBook, I cannot trade it. In other words, if I buy a Book on an iPad, I cannot transfer it to a new Kindle or Sony digital book reader. That is if the Harper Government passes their proposed legislation. Or put differently, just because I buy a book, it will not mean that I own a book.

Even worse, if Apple, Amazon or Sony decides to get out of the eBook game or goes bankrupt, I will have to buy all of my digital books again. If you do not think that this could happen, please remember that Apple almost went bankrupt in the 1990’s.  Given the large number of software and hardware companies that no longer in exist or have been radical changed, one could say that it is only a matter of time before a major company leaves or is forced to leave the eBook space. The question is what happens at that point?

No one knows. The rights, for example, for the eBook reader and material do not flow through to the user. Those rights, under today’s law, would flow through to the entity that purchased the rights from a bankrupt company. Under Canadian Bankruptcy Law, those rights could be changed or adjusted since all previous agreements for access to any digitally locked data could be changed. Patent agreements would be extinguished and so would any previous user agreements. And this is only the beginning.

We have not talked about the international exchange of digital rights or the cost to society for not being able to share digital content. So where do we go from here? I would argue that we need to have a cost sharing programme. One where the public purchases the private rights, so that the rights fall into the public hands. This would mean that we all could take advantage of gains and leaps in technology. Inventors would be paid for their work, but society could add onto inventors ideas.

This is only one way of looking at the situation. However, one thing remains clear: as a society, we need to change from where we are. The only question that remains is: “where will we end up?”.

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