Intellectual Property: Silly or Sinister?


Imagine a land recently seized from a foreign power where there is little law and a lot of gold. Since nature abhors a vacuum, prospectors quickly adopt the conventions of private property: Whoever is first to put four stakes in the ground is the proud owner of the land and any gold beneath. This would pretty much describe California in 1848. It makes a lot of sense, too: We can’t both mine for gold in the same spot, so only one of the two of us can claim the land. “First come first served” seems as fair a basis for adjudicating claims as any.

Now imagine that some lobbyists have staked out part of Antarctica and brought suit in federal court against tourists who trespassed on “their” land. Fine, you say: After all the lobbyists got there first. Replace “Antarctica” with “ideas” and you have the surreal world of “intellectual property.” Unfortunately, while you and I cannot both mine for gold in the same spot, we can certainly make use of the same idea, and therein lies the heart of this story.

A good spot to start the tale is in 1998, when a panel of judges ruled that software was patentable, thereby starting the intellectual property equivalent of the California gold rush (State Street Bank & Trust v. Signature Financial Group). Every child knows how to answer the door: “Knock knock.” “Who is there?” But what if I taught a computer how to say, “Who is there,” and patented the idea? Absurd, you say. Well, we all understand how to run an auction—but do not try doing it with a computer because the holder of U.S. Patent 7,702,540 (also known as e-Bay) will sue you. And that in a nutshell is what software patents are all about.

The entire concept of being able to patent a commonly used idea because it is implemented on a computer is silly, but this article is too short to review all of the millions of software patents issued since 1998. A famous and not-so-famous example may serve to reinforce the point. Raise your hand if you have not heard about the Amazon “one-click” patent (U.S. Patent 5,960,411). No hands? Okay, if you can patent one click, why not two? Sorry, that you cannot do. Why not? Microsoft beat you to it (U.S. Patent 6,727,830).

Software patents, though, are only a modern incarnation of an ancient evil. How about patenting the peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Too late, already done—in 2005, no less (U.S. Patent 6,874,409). That one did not hold up in court. There are so many silly patents that there are two websites, and, to publicize them. Many seem to tell a tale of inventors with little sense—and a government patent office with even less. How about a thong diaper (U.S. Patent D539422)?

Here is one that was approved by the eagle eyes at the U.S. Patent Office (U.S. Patent 6,637,349): “A motorized picnic table having a drive mechanism, wheels connected to and driven by the drive mechanism, a table mounted above the drive mechanism, and at least one seat adjacent the table. In the preferred embodiment, the seats are bench-type seats and flank the drive mechanism.”

That was “invented” by Gregory A. Lafferty, “approved” by patent examiners Robert Olszewski and James S. McClellan, and lawyered by Baker & Daniels.

And what was the patent examiner smoking when he approved this one?

A method of swinging on a swing is disclosed, in which a user positioned on a standard swing suspended by two chains from a substantially horizontal tree branch induces side to side motion by pulling alternately on one chain and then the other (U.S. Patent 6,368,227).

But if you think patenting the obvious is silly, then what about patenting the impossible? Do these inventors sit around and watch Star Trek all day, then rush off to the patent office? U.S. Patent 6,025,810 protects the warp drive: “[This] invention takes a transmission of energy, and instead of sending it through normal time and space, it pokes a small hole into another dimension, thus sending the energy through a place which allows transmission of energy to exceed the speed of light.” It comes complete with elaborate wiring diagrams.

Fun is fun. But there is a serious side to all this nonsense. In The Social Network, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg asks, “Why should a guy who makes a really good chair owe money to anyone who ever made a chair?” Yet in practice that is what patents are for. Take the matter of faster-than-light travel. The patent is silly because it is science fiction rather than science. But should a real entrepreneur ever come up with a way of communicating faster than the speed of light, the only thing we can be certain of is that she will then have her pants sued off for patent violation by Mr. David L. Strom—owner of the “idea” of the warp drive.

Does that sound crazy? Consider the true story of Jerome Lemelson, who in 1954 and 1956 filed patents (or so he later claimed) on optical scanning. Optical scanning was no more practical in 1956 than the warp drive is today—and needless to say, Lemelson’s “invention” did not include a working device. Still, when optical scanning became widespread in 1998, Lemelson demanded and received millions of dollars in royalties from the companies that produced optical scanners. It is true in the end the courts invalidated his patents. But he did not give back the money.


The Rest of the Story

Patents are not the end of the story. They seem so serious: They’re essential, it’s said, to innovation, growth, economic welfare. Patents involve weighty and important things. By contrast, trademarks and copyright seem lightweight. What does a song really matter to our economic well-being? The logo of a company? If the International House of Pancakes wants to sue the International House of Prayer for a trademark violation, well it’s silly, but so what? If a woman trademarks her name and threatens to sue anyone who uses it in written communication, well the world is filled with silly people. If one restaurant sues another over grazing goats on the roof, it’s an amusing article in the Wall Street Journal. Or suppose a company calls itself “Rosetta Stone,” trademarks the name, then sues Google for selling it as a keyword for searches. At least a big company like Google can afford the lawyers to defend itself. And if the media industry’s anti-piracy lawyers are suing one another for copying cease-and-desist letters, that’s not only silly but ironic, right? It’s true that these silly lawsuits clog up the courts, but that’s the price we have to pay for . . . well I am not sure why we have to pay it, but you get the point.

Some copyright stuff is sleazy. For example, Stephens Media encourages people to share its news articles with their friends, then sues them for copyright violation when they try to do it. It’s true the company intimidates a lot of people into paying up—but “no harm no foul”: Nobody has actually gone bankrupt on its account yet.

The truth is that trademarks—unlike patents and copyright—have a legitimate purpose. Why should someone be allowed to do business pretending to be me? That’s how trademark law is written. Yet no law has been written that lawyers cannot distort. A company, Peabody Energy, recently tried to take down a website making fun of its clean-energy claims because—you’ve got it—the site used its trademarked name.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an entire catalog of these kinds of offenses. Are they just silly? Or are they sinister? Suppressing free discussion of the demerits of a person (who trademarked her name) or a company (that trademarked its name) certainly is not the purpose of trademark law. Or how about this: When the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—a book not under copyright and in the public domain—was reformatted for the Adobe e-book reader, readers were told that any effort to copy, print, lend, or give the book away—or indeed to read the book out loud—would be a violation of international copyright law. Leaving aside that these restrictions are as meaningless as they are legally unenforceable, and that this falls into the silly rather than sinister category, the idea that a copyright holder might want to prevent something from being read aloud should give pause.

After you pause, take a deep breath: There is worse to come. There are copyright holders who want to prevent things from being read at all. The Diebold Corporation sued a group of students. Their offense? They made public internal company emails documenting that Diebold voting machines do not work especially well, and in particular are vulnerable to the casting of fraudulent votes. Pretty serious stuff. Why did Diebold sue these students? It sued them for copyright violation. It claimed the internal emails were copyrighted and that the students had reproduced them without permission. In this instance the courts behaved sanely: Judge Jeremy Fogel wrote in his decision that “no reasonable copyright holder could have believed that portions of the e-mail archive discussing possible technical problems with Diebold’s voting machines were protected by copyright.” But while threatening and carrying out meritless lawsuits is not as bad as winning them, it imposes a real tax on free speech. And more to the point, the history of intellectual property is the history of absurd requests being repeatedly rebuffed by the courts (think “software patents before 1998”) until a panel of judges finally caves in.

Let us be realistic: People sue each other for all sorts of silly reasons having nothing to do with intellectual property—and often win in court. People who spill coffee on their laps sue the maker of the coffee; burglars who fall through the roofs of properties they are robbing sue the owners for unsafe roof conditions, and so forth.


Abusive by Nature

So why condemn intellectual property law over, say, tort law more broadly? Why focus on IP and not on the broader problem of excess litigation? The answer is that intellectual property is abusive by its very nature. Despite what the propagandists say, intellectual property is not about protecting land from trespassers. It is about controlling what belongs to other people. It is about the right of Disney Corporation to tell me what to do with things I have on my computer—even things I have created myself.

Is it a coincidence that the main accomplishment of the patent system is to encourage rent-seeking behavior? Well, consider that originally the only purpose of the patent system was to encourage rent-seeking behavior. There was no fiction that it was a reward for invention: The king simply granted favored rent-seeking courtiers monopolies over the production of salt, the land in Virginia, or whatever the favorite with the largest bribe happened to desire.

Is it a coincidence that the main use of copyright is to suppress free speech? Well consider that originally the entire purpose of copyright was to suppress free speech. When the printing press became widespread, a monarchy deathly afraid of popular dissent granted printing companies “copyright” monopolies over the printing of (government-authorized) books, along with the right (and obligation) to burn any books the monarchy disapproved of.

Where is this all headed? Intellectual property is not merely a threat to freedom of trade and speech. It is also a threat to freedom of thought. Sound far-fetched? A ridiculous straw man? A wild exaggeration?

Is it? How about this famous copyright lawsuit that the plaintiff won? It concerned two songs: One consisted of four repetitions of a short musical phrase A followed by four repetitions of B. The other and subsequent song also consisted of four repetitions of A followed by three repetitions of B. And indeed, the tune was sufficiently “obvious” that the judge concluded that George Harrison did not knowingly copy the song “You’re So Fine” when he wrote “My Sweet Lord.” He nevertheless ruled for the plaintiff: “His subconscious knew it already had worked in a song his conscious did not remember. . . . That is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.”

Subconscious copyright violation! Just wait until we all have video cameras implanted in our retinas! Then you will have to pay a fee to Walt Disney Corporation or some other big company each time you look down the street. Or perhaps you will have to pay me: I’m thinking of patenting the idea.


January/February 2011

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