Here’s a quote from a book a family member recently picked up entitled “England in the Eighteenth Century (1714-1815)” by J.H. Plumb that I think quite nicely shows the folly behind the idea of patents solely as a social good to protect inventors:
Jealous of her own inventions and the supremacy of her industries, England viewed those of other nations with an envious eye. Naturally she welcomed Protestant refugees from France, Especially when they brought the secret of new industrial processes, but the most spectacular achievement in this field was by the brothers Lombe, an achievement which caught the nation’s imagination. In Italy, the manufacture of silk yarn was highly mechanised, though its mechanization was a profound secret; but in 1716, John Lombe went to Italy and managed to steal plans of the machines which he and his brother, Thomas, patented on his return. A vast factory, 400 feet long, which became one of the sights of England, was built on an island at Derby. Unfortunately, John died but, in fiffteen years, Thomas had made a fortune of £120,0000 and earned a knighthootd. In 1732, the patent lapsed, but a grateful Parliament bestowed £14,000 on Thomas and the industry, now open to all, spread rapidly.
Wikipedia doesn’t have much more detail, but when you see stories like this it does tend to highlight how systems like patents and copyright aren’t at all what they’re made to be publicly, in the past nor the present.
An odd thing has been happening in the entertainment industries insistence that piracy is a problem is that DRM has been a problem for their customers. DRM by design is broken for legitimate customers – it only serves to restrict what they can do both legally and illegally with products they’ve bought, whilst so called pirates continue to enjoy media unrestricted in one form or another. To get around this, companies have been tying “real” features to the DRM, and using it as a carrot to lure you into buying restricted products.
One of the most fundamental mistakes in assessing this new world brought about by the internet and what it means for distribution and business (or more accurately, the business of distribution) is to assume that piracy – file sharing, illegal or otherwise – is a problem. To assume piracy is a problem is to assume that inefficiency is good, that inefficiency is needed and that to maintain it for the sake of maintaining certain sources of income and jobs is the right thing to do.
The biggest difference between now and then (then being even just 10 years ago) is obviously the way in which we can access content. The way in which we can access our films, TV shows and music is easier, quicker and more convenient. The increase in cost for this near unrestricted access has been very little, if not actually decreased in cost substantially.
Rather than taking advantage of this near unlimited ability to copy and distribute to their advantage, many of the incumbent entertainment and media companies have revolted. They have eschewed the dramatic reduction in cost for distribution, and used the likes of DRM to block off others from getting their e-hands on these works apart from whom they have given permission to. What would make them take what seems to many others an opportunity, including both typical customers and the creators of works themselves, and turn it into something that threatens the very foundations of their “industry”?