Harry Potter takes a TRIP

Impatient for the sixth Harry Potter? Why not try Harry Potter and the Trade Related Intellectual Property Agreement (TRIPS)?

With demand outstripping supply, Muggles around the world have resorted to publishing their own stories about the teenage wizard.

In China, there’s Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon; in Russia, Tanya Grotter and the Magic Double Bass; in Belarus, Porri Gatter and the Stone Philosopher; in India, Harry Potter in Calcutta.

Harry’s creator, JK Rowling, isn’t happy about this. Luckily for her, under the WTO’s TRIPS agreement, original authors ‘enjoy the exclusive right of authorizing adaptations, arrangements and other alterations of their works’. Using domestic legislation, Rowling is waving a wand over Potter clones in WTO countries; they’re disappearing.

But the WTO exists to increase trade, points out Tim Wu. Before the courts intervened, local authors were creating made-to-measure Potter stories. They were meeting needs which Rowling couldn’t supply. The adaptations didn’t dissuade Rowling from writing new Harry Potter stories. By highlighting the popularity of the Potter brand, they encouraged aspiring writers to enter the market. Now, with the adaptations nixed, overall trade in Potter has gone down.

You could say that Burger King and Wendy’s stole the idea of a fun, plastic burger joint from McDonald’s and are unfairly profiting from their evil deed. But when it comes to burger joints, we accept that the consequence of a competitive market is less profit for the first mover (McDonald’s). Copyright should be no different. – Tim Wu, Slate

Beating the Event Horizon

Interviewed by Phillip Dodd for BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves last night, novelist William Gibson talked about the difficulties of writing in an age in which history has its finger pressed down firmly on the fast-forward button – not a cliché in 1984 when it appeared in Neuromancer – with no letting up in sight.

Gibson wanted to set Pattern Recognition, his latest novel, in the present. He thought that he’d become ‘a little bit too slick at doing the present-trends-transmogrified-into-an-imaginary-future thing.’

But how to catch it, fix it down on paper, a fictional present in a real present which won’t stay still for a second, which finds itself in a world where everything solid is melting into the ether of a world wide matrix, a world of rapid information flows where future shock never stops?

Writing the novel immediately after September 11 2001, he set its present in the ‘very, very near future’.

By the time the book was published, its present had passed. Now it’s a novel about the very recent past.

BBC Nightwaves audio on demand until April 30.

A Splice of Mice

Mickey isn’t the only mouse trying to wriggle out of the clutches of the masters of code.
Animation World Network

Canada last week refused to grant a patent for a genetically modified mouse.

Unlike the US, EU and Japan, Canada denies that Harvard’s scientists invented anything when they manipulated mouse genes. Its Supreme Court says the university doesn’t deserve a patent – at least not until the politicians have had a chance to think the ethics of biotech over.
National Post

As with Mickey, business concerns slam into public concerns here.

It doesn’t make much business sense for patented genes to be freely accessible. After all, you don’t want your rivals rummaging through your research work.

This isn’t just a standard big business line. As biotech develops, smaller firms, entrepreneurial boffins often, universities even, are entering the market as niche developers. Like artists, writers, coders and other intellectual property creators, they want to safeguard their work so they can be properly rewarded.

Fine, but when it comes to biotech, sole ownership of this kind of information isn’t in the public interest. Charging for access is likely to discourage research. Ideas develop most rapidly, most fruitfully through free exchanges of information. And it goes against common sense, moral sense, for private groups to have monopolies over such fundamental knowledge.

Think eugenics here. Think perfect blue-eyed, blond-haired babies. Think the Boys from Brazil.

Scientists as scientists tend to agree that science should be open to all, should be open source. According to Michael Morgan, formerly executive director of research at the Wellcome Trust, research and competition were enhanced when the results of the Human Genome Project were immediately made public – for free – over the Internet.
Globe and Mail

Business argues, however, that open source can sit alongside proprietary code. An academic institution, like Harvard, can apply its expertise to become a business and generate wealth for the good of its staff and students, for the greater good.

Perhaps. But GM mice, unlike Mickey or Windows XP, scamper through the real world. Clicking through standard intellectual property arguments when faced with invention at such a fundamental level, at a time when the news is one brave new nightmare, isn’t enough.

Corporations are exercising property rights over their biotech creations. How morally right is this? To enclose a creature’s genetic code? To turn such fundamental information, the stuff of life, into something that can be bought and sold?

Like much else in life, as the public debate over patenting life splutters on in parliaments and in the media, the business of business happens quietly in the background. The corporations are shaping the biotech agenda. In universities even.

Canada’s politicians may ponder long and hard. They won’t be able to ignore the pressure from corporate lobbyists. Canada has to play the same free trade rules as the rest of the world. Patent law there, as everywhere else, will be reinvented for the 21st Century.

Meanwhile, challenging the idea of minting money out of minting life is left to the scientists. The Canadian decision came the day after the publication of the draft complete mouse genome. Scientists from 27 institutions in six countries took part in the £87m Mouse Genome Sequencing Consortium.

The consortium is in the public sector. All its data is in the public domain.

Off Switch For Big Media

It’s the beginning of the end of the big media monopoly, argues Robert X Cringely. The big media corporations may have succeeded in making copying illegal. But even Microsoft is starting to acknowledge that there’s been a total failure in stopping the growth of a culture of copying.

Big media’s next step will be to employ hacking techniques against peer-to-peer file sharing systems. Then, as consumer PR hits rock bottom, the corporates will introduce their own pretty peer-to-peer systems.

With corporate peer-to-peer – two incompatible ideas – likely to fail, big media will increasingly concentrate on media projects, like blockbuster films, requiring large amounts of cash. Text and music will come from individual writers and artists operating outside the old media loop.

If the corporates don’t accommodate this new media, they may find their game is over.
– Cringely’s Pulpit

How To Be A Genius

It’s sharing ideas that leads to innovation. The Romantic idea of the artist as a lonely genius? It’s more like Newton and Oasis and the rest of us jostling for position on the shoulders of giants.

According to Malcolm ‘Tipping Point‘ Gladwell, innovation happens when people egg each other on. Group social interaction results in radical ideas.

He looks at how Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, how Darwin, Watt and Priestley, how TV comedians Saturday Night Live got together and got down – in John Belushi’s case to coke snorting and everybody’s wife – to produce, in the end, pure genius.

Of course, innovation needs heads-down time too. The trick is to ‘combine the right kind of insularity with the right kind of homogeneity’ and create an environment that’s safe and yet stimulating.
– New Yorker

Glib? Sure, everybody nowadays loves innovation, creativity and thinking out of the rectangular container. Just needs a little singing from the same hymnbook. Buzzword bingo!

But Gladwell has a point. Creativity requires collaboration. It also requires the ability to rework ideas taken from a common stock.

What should send us scurrying to the law books at this point, Gladwell’s tipping or even, judging by the number of newspaper stories around about copyright issues, tipped point, is that not everyone thinks the creative process should happen freely – not in the sense of ‘free beer’ and not, sometimes, in the sense of ‘free speech’.

Jonathan Zittrain, director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says we’re at the start of a culture war.

It sounds dramatic, but he’s right. As a result of the ease with which files can be shared across the internet, the informal common sense approach to sharing ideas, to innovating, is crashing against the corporate belief in the sanctity of copyright.

Business is ready to accept innovation, is ready to let us make content, is ready to give us access to walled gardens where collaboration can happen – but only at a price, if it can be costed, worked into a business plan.

Zittrain says we need a compromise between the profit motive and the urge to create. Given the current political climate, that’s unlikely unless there’s a general recognition of what we stand to lose. Zittrain ends: ‘freedom of trade must not trump freedom of mind’.
– Boston Globe

Rip, Mix and Desist

Develop an existing idea so that it becomes something new and you’ll be applauded for your creativity and genius. Unless you’re hit with a cease-and-desist letter first.

The images and sounds in Illegal Art, currently at New York’s 313 Gallery, broke copyright law and so media corporations and their lawyers dragged the artists responsible to the courtroom.

Not Mickey

Not a familiar cartoon character by Ashley Holt

Highlights include:

  • Brian Boyce’s State of the Union: George W Bush lights up the Teletubbies
  • Wally Wood’s Disneyland Memorial Orgy: Team pushups with Goofy and Minnie and the rest of the Disney gang
  • Ray Belder’s $ Mao: Warhol’s Chairman Mao portrait gets a money makeover
  • The JAMs’ The Queen and I MP3: Dancing Queen is bjorn again
  • Ready for My Shot

    Without copyright term extensions, old films wouldn’t get distributed, argues the entertainment industry. ‘Indiscriminate exploitation’ by public domain copyists would reduce the flow of cash to Big Media and hence the motivation Big Media needs to ‘publish’ films.
    CS Monitor

    Intellectual property academics Lawrence Lessig and Jason Schultz say that’s so much baloney. Digging around the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), Schultz finds that out of the 37,000 or so movies released between 1927 and 1946, only 2,480, 6.8%, are commercially available.
    Lessig Blog

    So, advice to Hollywood: why not place the whole lot in the public domain and see what happens?