Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Does IP law really help creativity?

Yesterday I attended the Glasgow edition of “Business is Great Britain” - a ‘Global Business Summit on Creative Content’. The event took place in London byu I attended one of the satellite events in this case the Glasgow arm organised by the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce where we were treated to a streamed version of the London event.

As it championed all things creative in Britain I couldn't help be struck by the irony of an event that began with Sir Howard Stringer, Chairman of Sony Corp, extolling the importance and centrality of intellectual property and copyright protection to the on going success creative industries and then to sit for at least two session in the morning when the content couldn't be broadcast from London to Glasgow “for copyright reasons”.

It was harder to imagine a more striking demonstration as to how unsuited intellectual property law is to the digital age. And we see it everyday. I have yet to find anyone who can give me a cogent argument as to who benefits from the  truly ridiculous Samsung v Apple tit for tat. The only beneficiaries as far as I can see are the lawyers, the fees for whom will be truly eyewatering and simply passed on to the consumer (that’s you and me by the way) whilst the disputed features that are supposed to benefit us are withdrawn, suspended and generally messed about with to become ultimately useless.

But Sir Howard was clear in his own mind that protecting IP to preserve “long term” revenues was what it was all about. And I think it is on that point that I could not disagree more.

His argument was this ability to lock up the revenue generating potential of an invention for the long term is what underpins creativity and without it creativity simply withers and dies. To demonstrate the historical significance of this (and the UKs historical role is establishing this core principle) he pointed to the ancient formation of copyright law, and cited the example of Joshia Wedgewood as an exemplar of a creative who successfully commercialized his creative genius and in so doing generated an enduring national legacy. The later part I would agree with but this was a tale of the early industrial era, one has to ask how appropriate is it now? I was tempted to scream at the screen that the interrupted show we were watching would not be possible without that marvellously open piece of software called LINUX. The irony became deeper, although less apparent to Sir Howard, when he championed the creative genius of Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Hmm? Yes that would be the Sir Tim Berners-Lee who enriched our lives by....not protecting his invention.

In the case of LINUX and WWW we have seen billions of pounds of value created by endless creativity that would not have been unleashed had those two geniuses of Torvald and Berners-Lee not had the vision, grace and generosity  to free their creativity to be shared with the world to build on.

Another example quoted of creativity was Stephen Hawking. Now I can’t be sure but as far as I am aware he is not a multi patent owner, but I am pretty confident that his insight and wisdom are shared academic ammunition that have been built upon by others without constraint.

Now don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting no protection, but our desire for a simpler more appropriate mechanism of managing this, it seems to me, is writ large in the wide adoption of Creative Commons.

However my main point is this. In a world of extremely rapid iteration ( the “pivoting” and fast fail to which Sir Howard refered) long term locking up is surely a recipe for stagnation. For the industrial era of large corporations maybe it worked ( although I have reservations about that)  But in a highly collaborative, agile and responsive development environment shorter protection would surely be much more appropriate. In a world of creativity, where the freedom to build readily in others ideas more rapidly releasing invention to be extended and developed must win. Similarly I think  the returns would be more equitably spread and the incentive would be there to keep inventing, keep creating.

I am old enough to remember “Home Taping is Killing Music” with an accompanying Skull and Crossbones  being stamped onto the inner sleeves of just about every LP I borrowed and taped. It seems with hindsight ( and I said it at the time too) that it didn't, and I think calls to preserve the old order because it served us well in Joshia Wedgwoods day is not an argument for its unreformed retention today.