2009 is slowly starting up. Not much happened in the week surrounding the New Year day, except perhaps more intellectual property confusion. Specifically, while the image of Popeye the Sailor [is] copyright free 70 years after Elzie Segar's death, his name is still trademarked. Therefore the brave sailor is neither in the public domain nor copyrighted... some sort of IP undead, and since trademarks don't expire, he's likely to stay that way. Meh. Not to be undone, Amtrak launched a photo contest concerning its own trains, but forgot to mention it to their security guards. Or was it intentional mockery?
But these news just happen to tie nicely into a book I've been reading on and off for the past month or so.
James Boyle's The Public Domain is an incursion into the many (and often ugly) issues surrounding copyright and patents, since their invention during the 18th century and up to 2007. With exceptionally well-documented case studies and well-thought-out arguments, the author makes the case for striking a balance between the rights of authors and those of the public at large.
And that's my big gripe with the book: throughout the 300+ pages, Mr. Boyle keeps repeating that intellectual property laws are ultimately good. But every single example he gives demonstrates how creativity flourishes in the absence of (and often despite) legal "protections", how these legal protections keep expading in scope and duration at the whim of business lobbysts, and how the only real hope nowadays appears to come from initiatives such as the GPL and Creative Commons, which turn copyright on its head.
Oh, the book does bring up (in passing) the tired old example of pharmaceutical research, which supposedly would not be done in the absence of patents, as it is too expensive. But this one doesn't hold water, as the author himself admits when he suggests (again, in passing), that some of this research would be made cheaper by a simple sharing of efforts among the companies involved.
For the most part, though, the book is plain great. I had no idea that a single song can have such a rich history. Or that copyright has stirred so much controversy since the very beginning. It does become a little difficult to follow halfway through - as the preface warns it may happen - but the last 40% or so more than make up for it.
My final impression is that Mr. Boyle is trying too hard to hold the middle ground, which is admirable, if misguided. But his case studies are fascinating, the arguments interesting and his proposals worth considering. All in all, a good read, which I can't recommend enough. Especially to people who, for various reasons, are still unfamiliar with the topic.
Digital Week #6: A Comedy of the Commons by Felix Pleşoianu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.