Owning Ideas


Intellectual Property Laws are Confusing and Counterintuitive to Many People

Some of you already know that I work in printing: copies, posters, signs, presentations, flyers, that sort of thing.  Now, while I am going to use a particular category of customer to springboard into my point, and while this whole entry could easily turn into a rant complaining about said type of customer, rest assured that this is not that kind of blog.

Imagine you have a daughter who is about to graduate from high school.  Senior picture time is long past, and you were prepared and diligent.  Alas, though, your daughter was not.  She comes home from school and tells you that she needs three more copies of the wallet sized one of her in front of that cool bridge in the Metroparks.  She needs them by tomorrow because it’s the last day of school and she needs to write notes on the backs of them to give to her friends.  (Let me know in the comments if high school students still do that).

Ok, Mom or Dad, what do you do?

If you’re like many, you chug on over to your local drug store, or big box store, or copy shop, where you know they have one of those machines that you can duplicate photos with.  And if you’re like many others, you have never used one of those machines.  Not to worry, though, because friendly, courteous staff are on hand to help you through the process.

There’s just one problem:  what you are attempting to do is a federal offense.  That’s right.  Professionally taken photographs are one of the many materials that are protected by copyright law.

Now, while the people who, after being told this, get angry and make a big scene about it do fill me with frustration (and sometimes rage), and make me want to shout things including an expletive that takes advantage of the consonance in the phrase “Federal oFfense,” that is not the subject of this blog entry.  In fact, in this entry I’m going to come down on the side of understanding and compassion:  I get it.  It’s counterintuitive.

If you were to walk into a Wal Mart, grab a big screen TV off the shelf, and walk out without paying, you would be stealing.  And also incredibly gutsy.  The thing is this: most people would know intuitively that  doing that is wrong, or at the very least that it goes against the usual grain of the society that we live in.  We exchange money for things.  If you take a thing without giving the requisite amount of money, then you’ve broken the rules.

So, back to Mom or Dad and the senior photos.  Mom or Dad has already paid (probably handsomely) for those photos.  “If I buy a television,” Mom or Dad might say, “then it’s mine to do with as I choose.  The same is true of these photos.”  And they’re mostly right, as long as they choose to distribute them or mount them on an embarrassing collage for the grad party, and not to physically or digitally duplicate them.  This is because the photos are unique pieces of art.  They’re considered intellectual property.  The same would be true of drawings, or paintings, or short stories, or blog entries, or website copy, or– you get the idea.

For those of you who already knew the ins and outs of intellectual property and copyrights, thanks for bearing with me.  I promise to stop being condescending and preachy now.

I am also not going to turn this into a discussion about how many of the people in our society do not appreciate art or those who create it, and how if they did, all the intellectual property stuff wouldn’t be so mystifying to them.  But they don’t.  And it wouldn’t.  Anyway…

I’ve done a little copywriting for a web designer friend of mine as part of a design package he put together for a client.  The client decided that he did not want to use my copy and that he would write his own.  Which is fine.  He knows his business far better than I do.  What is not fine is that the copy he “wrote himself” was just a really poor, half-assed restatement of the copy that I created for his site.  Entire sentences were identical.  Now, I was paid by my web designer friend, not the client, and as such I did not feel the need to pursue the matter.  It was a good learning experience for me.

Also, the client in question isn’t a criminal.  I mean, ok, technically he committed plagarism.  But he’s not a malicious criminal.  I’m confident that he had no idea that using my copy the way he did was in any way wrong, because like I said before:   I get it.  It’s counterintuitive.  It’s just words, right?  How can you own words?

Well, you can.  So there’s that.  But again, I understand the confusion.

Writer–check.  Ah, yes, gamer.  Ok, let’s talk about DRM.

DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is one of the tools used to help protect the intellectual property rights of those who create digital content.  Only being able to register four different computers to one iTunes library is an example of DRM.  So is the copy protection on DVDs and DVD ROMs.  If you follow video game industry news, you know there was a huge stink surrounding Microsoft’s new DRM policies following the XBox One presentation at E3.

The short version of the policy is as follows: unlike the current game market, in which game discs can be resold and resold again as long as the media itself holds out, Microsoft was going to make it so that the ownership of a single copy of a game could only be transferred once in the life of that copy.  So I can buy it, and then I can give it to a friend, but that’s it.  No more picking up a copy at 60% off at Gamestop or wherever.  Additionally, the consoles were going to have to “phone home” once every 24 hours so that account ownership and such could be verified by Microsoft’s servers.

All of which had gamers up in arms, and led to Sony’s PS4 becoming the unofficial “winner” of E3.  Mind you, by the time I’m writing this, all of these policies have been reversed in a stunning and impressive example of a company actually listening and responding to its customers.  All that said, I don’t believe that the online and DRM policies are what Microsoft did wrong.  No, Microsoft’s big snafu was in the way they handled the transition.  And by “they,” I mean former head of Microsoft Interactive Entertainment, Don Mattrick.

I say that it’s the transition, not the policies themselves, because most of the adults in the room understand why those sorts of policies need to exist.  Digital distribution is growing wildly fast, and so our methods of protecting intellectual property need to race to catch up.  Microsoft’s proposed policy was radical.  Was it ideal?  Of course not.  Was it annoying?  Absolutely.  But the bottom line is this: better DRM is going to be necessary to protect the industry at large.  If we don’t have these systems and procedures in place, then we will no longer have the Halos and the Assassin’s Creeds of the video game world: big ticket, expensive games that require big studios to get off the ground.

Microsoft’s mistake was letting Mattrick anywhere near a microphone.  (I’m sorry — that’s a little extreme, but seriously, that guy was just a jerk to anybody who questioned the policies on the grounds of not having internet access).  Mattrick’s basic attitude seemed to be that this was simply the way things in the industry were headed (which is true) and that anybody who disagreed were backwards idiots who shouldn’t even own a new generation console (which is a dick move.  Seriously).  He acted like nothing was being taken away (which is absurd).

I’m certainly not suggesting that a kinder approach would have simply erased the problem of angry customers lamenting the loss of the used game market.  But most of the people who value these games are people who were raised in a world of paid digital content.  These people know that game developers have mortgages and insurance premiums and things for which they need money.  A gentler treatment of these people, wherein it was explained that these measures were needed to protect the game industry so that it could continue to generate the games they loved, would have won over at least some of them.

As it stands, while I am on some level happy that I’ll still be able to pick up cheap copies of used games for the next generation of consoles, I worry that the cause of protecting the games industry been set back a bit.

But really, who knows?  DRM is a young technology, and like all young tech, it’s still extremely clumsy.  Maybe Microsoft was moving too far too fast, prematurely implementing a technology that still needs to grow.

As it stands, Mattrick is going to be taking over at Zynga, shamelessly extending his middle fingers to all the Farmville players out there.  (Ok, last Mattrick jab, I promise).  All joking aside, though, it’s a really good move. With the rise of the new Android microconsoles, having a tried and true console man (and really, an asset — much respect to Don Mattrick) in their ranks will probably work out well for them.

This was a long one, so thank you very much for reading.  Please, please, support the arts.  They’re not just a diversion.  They’re important.  And think twice before you duplicate that professionally taken photo or download that song.  Someone worked to create it, and that means something.

Thank you again.  More to follow.


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