Monday, 9 April 2012

How Do the IP Wars Affect Us?

Wars have all kinds of costs, some of which are easy to calculate, others less so. In any case, they won't pay for themselves. What are the benefits, and how do they affect consumers?

It's war in Silicon Valley. As I write, the latest salvo of heavy weapons fire is being aimed by Facebook, who have just bought Instagram for $1BN. The reason? To mess with Google. It's like nuclear war, but this arms race is about acquiring enough patents to protect themselves against patent lawsuits from competitors while having the power to go against infringers, real or imagined.

This ridiculous patent trolling is part of a rising trend in the tech world where companies that have lost their innovative edge resort to petty tactics such as licensing shakedowns and IP infringement lawsuits.

Meanwhile, Microsoft just bought up a load of patents from AOL, also to mess with Google. The most commented-on effect of this is that it chills innovation because the broadly-worded patents make inventors too afraid to come up with new products in case they get sued, particularly if their idea interferes in any way with established legacy business models. Netflix is encountering the same problem with Big Content because they refuse to accept that file-sharing and bitTorrents are legitimate ways of experiencing content, whether it was generated by them or not.

Caught in the crossfire

Meanwhile, consumers are caught in the crossfire. Lawyers are costly and those bills won't pay themselves. Litigation and the cost of the hard-won license fees will force up prices and further chill innovation, keeping it in the hands of the monopolists with the biggest and broadest patent portfolios.

It's not just that. Big Content want their share of the tech millions so they're trying to force them to police us or limit what we can or can't do online. If they get their way I'm fairly certain that in the future there won't be an internet. There will be internets, with each country having its own and locking out other countries' internets, which will be accessible only through authorized gateways and all interactions will be closely monitored. There's room for unauthorized gateways in this scenario, but they'd be playing cat and mouse with global authorities which would consider it to be in their best interests to limit our ability to interact with other people and discover unauthorized information.

Think I'm nuts? We've got that now with "pirated content," a ridiculous scenario that insists you cannot own what you pay for, you can only license it. Mind you, the globalization of industry and tech in particular requires an open internet. Shutting it down or restricting it overmuch would limit the ability to do business, thereby damaging the economies of authoritarian regimes, but can Big Content see that?

Big Data out of favour

The revelation that Big Data companies like Microsoft have been putting the squeeze on governments all over the world shouldn't come as a surprise. Why don't the governments of those countries just make their own software? Patents and licensing. They're currently switching to open source, to Microsoft's chagrin.

If they can't milk the government cash cows for license fees, they'll have to squeeze consumers for them. If that doesn't work, the next stop is litigation against open source program providers. That's why ACTA and TPP are such a threat. We the people are easier targets.

The best we can do is to push our representatives to work on IP reform, and if they don't listen, vote Pirate or Green in the next election. I will.

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