Over at the Slate site, there is an interesting article about someone who filed for, and was granted, a patent by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. He was actually filing on behalf of his 5-year old son, Steven. Steven’s invention: how to make a swing go sideways by pulling alternatively on the chains, instead of the more common back-and-forth technique driven by leg pumping. Sound silly? Of course it is, but it’s no sillier than some of the mania these days about protecting and extending copyrights for everything from music to e-books to Mickey Mouse.
If you want to delve into the issue deeply, Lawrence Lessig explains the situation fully in this 18-minute TED talk. It is also touched on in the video about kids doing dangerous things lke breaking the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) that I wrote about a few days ago. Basically, it’s the debate about how much freedom should people have to enjoy music, words, images and performances without directly compensating the artist.
I personally don’t see why any creative person would favour legally restricting people’s ability to experience their work. I’m not talking about piracy here – piracy by my definition is someone selling someone else’s creation as if it were their own. So fake copies of software and knock-off movie DVDs that are sold to people, without the producer getting any money from the sale, are pirated. I’m talking about sharing or copying the work in order for more people to enjoy it. Nobody pays me to write this blog (like a journalist is paid, for instance); and nobody pays to read it (like you pay for a magazine or newspaper, for instance). I would be ecstatic if hundreds or thousands of people “stole” my words and reprinted them in their blogs or newsletters or whatever. The widespread enjoyment of my product would enhance the value of the producer (me).
But Stephen, you commie pinko hippy socialist, how then will people be enticed to make great things, if they can’t expect to get paid for them? We’ll never see another Abbey Road or Casablanca or To Kill a Mockingbird!
To answer that question, I point to the sold out $175/seat Elton John concert here in Moncton next month, the recent release of The Dark Knight and its record-breaking box office, and the free ebooks that Seth Godin has written. I can get Elton, Batman and Seth for free on the Web – why would I ever pay for a concert, theatre ticket, or hardcover book? Because the proliferation of the product (songs/film/words) has enhanced the value of the producer, to the point where I will pay a premium to experience the producer in a special venue (live show/big screen theatre/physical book).
What has changed to enable this era of self promotion via giving stuff away? Digital media. It used to be that when you shared something with someone, you no longer had it. If you handed your LP to your friend, you could no longer listen to it. Same with video tapes and books. But now, you can effortlessly make a copy of it, so you and your friend both have it. In the old world, before you could sell a million copies, you had to manufacture a million copies. Now, you can give away a million digital copies for free, and you’re just as popular.