From over-the-counter medicines to the corrugated cardboard sleeve on a Starbucks coffee cup, intellectual property law hides in plain sight behind a surprising array of everyday objects, and it doesn’t always have the best of intentions.
Back in December I reviewed ‘The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy’, a book that looks at licensing agreements which come attached to any digital download, and dictate any use, or pleasure, you can take from digital property. If, like me, you love to get into the nitty gritty of what you can and can’t do with information, you no doubt read the review, and bought and consumed the book too.
Where ‘The End of Ownership’ looked at the changing relationship with how we own intellectual property of others, this latest book explores how the very nature of intellectual property has changed over time. ‘Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction’ one of the latest great additions to OUP’s mini introduction series, considers how copyright and patenting laws have changed over from avenues designed to protect and nurture creativity, to tools used for economic gain. That’s right, guys, the reason Amazon want to retain total control over your digital library is because it is in its economic interests to do so.
Author Siva Vaidhyanathan recounts how he first became interested in rules and regulations of intellectual property while working for a large media company that claimed his creative work as its own. As a content producer, Vaidhyanathan saw his work used, reworked and quoted completely outside of the realms of his control. This set the ball rolling for a complex journey into the confusing, and often contradictory, matrix of ownership and creativity.
The story begins with the American music scene, tracing changing dynamics of hip-hop in the 1980s and early 1990s, a time rife with sampling lawsuits inevitably leading to dumbing down of some of the defining characteristics of the music genre. It becomes all the more complex at the turn of the century, with the rise and fall of the first widespread file sharing service – Napster – and the resulting global ‘free culture’ movement of the early 21st century.
This book, though, looks at more than just the relationship between intellectual property and creativity, and how copyright and patent legislation has evolved over time. Rather, it is an approach to understanding your rights as a copyright holder. As Vaidhyanathan says, if you send or receive emails, texts and use social media, you are a copyright holder and more than likely an infringer too. What’s more, if you own a smartphone, tablet or e-reader, and consume digital media therewith, then a substantial portion of the price you pay will go to cover license patents.
You might take for granted that you can buy over-the-counter allergy medicine at a cheap price from your local pharmacy – this wouldn’t have been the case many years ago, when medicine was still covered by patents dictating who could sell it. Patents and copyright licensing are everywhere, from medication on your prescription and CDs in your local HMV, to the unassuming corrugated cardboard sleeve designed to stop you burning your hand on your morning Starbucks flat white. In fact, as Vaidhyanathan points out, Starbucks is just as much an intellectual property company as it is a food and beverage supplier. The coffee company has its own entertainment arm, and produces and sells music it feels will appeal to its clientele. This is just one of the reasons for the eye watering price tag on the aforementioned flat white; all those lawyers don’t come cheap.
Intellectual property is a hugely complicated and confusing theme to try and get your head around, but one thing is clear, it’s all about the money. Intellectual property as it is today is present because there are people who want it to exist. There are companies and individuals with huge economic interests invested in restraining the global movement for standardisation of intellectual property. Copyrights, patents and other laws dictating how property can be used say as much, if not more, about the world in which we live – they do creative content they are designed to protect. Where once intellectual property protection existed to protect and foster creativity, today it has taken on a whole new political, economic and cultural identity.
‘Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction’ serves as a wonderfully accessible avenue into a wholly confusing topic, making it another truly spectacular addition to the QUP ‘Very Short Introduction’ series. This is a book for law buffs, experts on rules and regulations, and anyone looking to widen their economic and political understanding of the world – or make a splash at an incredibly specific pub quiz.
This review was first published online for E&T magazine