Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Time For A Change?

Maybe it's about time that people started calling for a wholesale reform of intellectual property laws (including much needed clarifications), or just our system of laws in general. After all, SOPA and PIPA are not the only bad laws to be proposed. And, if passed, they won't be the only bad laws enacted.

We've become too comfortable in the fact that most of the really nasty laws that are on the books just aren't our problem, and so we ignore them. Sure, waves are made when some media outlet presents the story of the some sympathetic sod who's spending life in prison for what seems to be little more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but having that one person released from prison doesn't take the law off the books, and when the person in jail strikes us as just another gang-banger, we shrug and walk away.

The reason why so much money is spent lobbying for intellectual property laws is that entire business models are based around the ability to sell an idea. Often multiple times. And the laws aren't our only worry. When Sawyer and Mann sued Thomas Edison over his light bulb, their claim of patent infringement was based on the idea that they had patented making an incandescent filament out of any fibrous or textile material. They hadn't done any experimentation to determine what material might work - they just applied for, and received a patent for any and everything that fit the bill. They lost. Today, even though the laws haven't really changed, they would have won, because the judicial climate has changed. Patents too broad to be upheld a century ago are now routinely used as weapons. And guess whose pockets the money for the litigation comes from, when Microsoft sues Apple sues HTC sues Motorola, and so on and so on? But when the risk of having a web site taken down due to some errant pop songs comes along, out come the torches and the pitchforks.

We shouldn't wait for these things to be in our collective faces to start understanding  what our laws are, and how they may be used - and for what purposes. It's a pretty safe bet that were I an unscrupulous prosecutor, I could have you put on trial right now, with the chance of a life sentence if you were convicted - without a shred of physical evidence that you'd ever committed a crime. It happens all the time in drug cases. The word a felon is enough, even if I'm going to let them out of what you're going to get for testifying against you. Oh, and by the way... Even if you could prove that I set you up - I would have immunity from prosecution.

Nice, huh?

I'm not in the business of outrage peddling, so don't feel badly if you're not ready to be up-in-arms. Besides, I wouldn't expect you to take my word for it. But the United States legal code is a very long document. And it's the things about it that we don't know that can really hurt us. And if we let it stay that way long enough, it will.

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