‘Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction’ by Siva Vaidhyanathan

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.

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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

‘The End of Ownership’ by Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz

If you buy a book at the book shop, you own it, and are free to do exactly as you wish with it. You might be surprised to hear that the same is not true of ebooks and other downloaded media. In fact, as Aaron Personowski and Jason Schultz discuss, the digital world is an incredibly complicated place when it comes to ownership.

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Chances are if you own an iPod, Kindle or even a desktop or laptop you are no stranger to the world of the digital download. It is becoming more and more common to simply pay for a digital copy of a song, book or film, rather than worrying about cumbersome physical objects. Who even has time to wait for an Amazon delivery these days, anyway? The digital download has done wonders for the instant gratification of consumers, but at what cost? Like it or not, each time you click ‘pay now’ on a digital purchase, you are entering a new and confusing world, rife with rules, regimes and regulations that restrict how you interact with your downloads.

Authors Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz use their book to delve into the complex, jargon-ridden world of the rights of digital consumers, to uncover the mystery of whether we can really be considered ‘owners’ of our digitalia. As the owner of a physical object you enjoy certain freedoms; if you have a collection of print books, you are free to annotate them, modify them, or even destroy them if you want to. The same however, cannot be said to the ‘owners’ of downloaded goods.

Every time you buy an ebook from Amazon or a song from iTunes you sign an end-user licence agreement (EULA) – let’s be honest, you have probably never read it – the contents of which are far removed from the freedom we enjoy with physical ownership. Consumers do not actually own digital purchases, they license them and have the permission to read, listen to, play, or watch them. Slightly more worrying is the fact that the company providing the software used to access these files effectively has control over a user’s digital library.

Here’s an interesting case. In July 2009 Amazon remotely, and without warning, wiped (irony of ironies) George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Animal Farm’ from all Kindle ereaders, following a dispute with the publishers.

Small fry, perhaps? Permissible collateral damage? Well, what happens when devices, or corporations, become obsolete? That’s what happened to HDGIANTS Inc, a former distributor of high-quality audio and video files. When it went bankrupt, its servers were switched off, and with that, portions of the digital libraries of thousands of paying customers evaporated.

So how content should consumers be with their content? A bookshop cannot, as Schultz and Perzanowski point out, creep into your house in the middle of the night and reclaim the contents of your physical shelves – so why can digital providers? Is it fair that book lovers and audiophiles are charged prices akin to a physical copy for a digital download that is completely at the mercy of publishers and licensers? What is the benefit to the consumer of opting for digital files? Are the benefits of reducing waste and getting instant gratification really worth it?

‘The End of Ownership’ presents the confusing world of the digital consumer in wonderfully accessible prose, replacing hideous jargon with the simplest of analogies, from thieving bookshops to the goblins from Harry Potter. It will answer the questions you have regarding digital ownership, and it’s inevitable that more than a few of them have never even crossed your mind.

In an increasingly complex world, plagued by unreadable (certainly unread) terms and conditions, it is more than a little refreshing to have something explained in good, plain English.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.