Monday, March 22, 2010

Copyrights, Patents, and Trademarks

There is a lot of confusion over copyrights, patents, and trademarks.  I'll attempt to explain them somewhat, as well as rant on how things should be.  I'll start by explaining each:

Trademark is probably the least important to most people.  The purpose of trademarks is to ensure that when someone buys something they know who they are buying it from.  They protect logos and brands for an indefinite time.  In order to get trademark protection you pretty much have to start using the logo for commerce.  Later, if someone else tries to use the same name or symbol you can sue them.  Trademarks can be generic words (Apple, Delta, or Shell), but the word can't be connected to the industry.  You couldn't get a trademark for "computer" for a company selling computers.  You probably could get it if you sold fruit (the opposite case of Apple).  Also multiple entities can trademark the same word, as long as they are totally different industries.  You could probably start a car company called Apple and trademark it.

As said above, trademarks last forever, as long as they are used and defended.  You must defend your trademark if others try to use it.  If you fail to sue people using your trademark then you will lose legal protection.  The question to ask yourself in regards to trademark is this, "when people hear X in relation to industry Y, do they think of this specific brand?" If a brand becomes too well know, and becomes synonymous with that item then it becomes a genericized trademark and can lose its protection.  Some examples from Wikipedia, Aspirin - Bayer AG, Escalator - Otis Elevator Company, Zipper - B.F. Goodrich, Kerosene - Abraham Gesner, Heroin - Friedrich Bayer & Co, Videotape - Ampex Corporation.  However, not all genericized trademarks have lost their protection.  Examples again from Wikipedia, Band-Aid (Adhesive bandage) - Johnson & Johnson, ChapStick (Lip balm) - Wyeth Consumer Healthcare, Frisbee (flying disc) - Wham-O, Jell-O (Gelatin dessert) - Kraft Foods, Post-its (Sticky notes) - 3M.

Patents typically apply to physical objects or inventions.  Their purpose is to encourage people to disclose the workings of their inventions, by giving them a monopoly for a limited time, after which all may benefit from having the workings known.  The way a patent works is you come up with some new way of doing something, then you submit the details of the process to the patent office and receive a patent.  If someone else comes along and copies your idea then you can sue them and win, as long as you can prove they likely copied your idea.  Out of the three, patents are the only ones that require registration to enforce.  You must detail the workings in order to receive a patent, so that when the patent expires others may use your idea and build upon it.  As opposed to what I implied above you can patent abstract ideas and processes, those patents are usually rubbish.

Copyright is the big one today.  Copyright has a similar concept to patents, it gives the creator an incentive to create by granting them a limited monopoly.  However, since things that should be copyrighted are media you don't have to disclose anything.  If you write a book the text of the book is copyrighted, you don't have to submit the text for a copyright because everyone will have access to it if they have the book.  You don't have to submit for a copyright, everything you create automatically has one.  However, getting a formal copyright will make it easier to prove your creation in court, and increase the damages you can collect.

So now that I've explained how they work, it is time to explain the way things should be.  Trademarks, for the most part, are fine as they are today.  Patents are pretty good as well.  The current term  in the US is 25 years, which is a bit too long.  I would rather it be 10 years, with the ability to renew for another 10 years, for a maximum of 20 years.  The fee for the first 10 years should be rather small ($25), however the second 10 years should require much more ($500).  It would only make sense to renew patents on things that actually were worth something.  Patents on abstract things are usually worthless, however not always.  The key is having experts in the fields to review the patent requests and reject them if they are attempting to patent something obvious to someone in the field.

Copyrights, however, are a mess.  For a work created today in the US it will be protected for the creator's entire life plus 70 years.  Or if created by a non human entity it will be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation whichever is shorter.  What possible added incentive to create could there be in knowing your work will be protected for 70 years after you die?  If something you create is still profitable after a few decades then it was profitable enough to make any additional incentive meaningless.  It is absurd to think that Led Zeppelin wouldn't have made their music if they knew they would get less than a century of protection for it.  You can't legitimately argue that 20 years of monopoly on a work isn't enough to cover all the costs and provide a massive profit (as long as people are willing to pay).  Allowing people to earn money on something that was created before they were alive only prevents those people from having to create things of their own.  Why should any media company bother to create new works when they can just earn money for things created decades ago?

Copyright should be the same as patents, 10 years, with an optional 10 year renewal.  The difference being that the first 10 year period would be automatic, as it is now.  The second 10 year period would still cost a larger sum ($500), and require submitting for copyright.  Under this system anything made prior to 1990 would be public domain today.  Can you honestly argue that if this system were in place, that people and companies would have been less likely to create new works in the 1980's, knowing that they could only milk them for 20 years?

Also you should only be able to patent or copyright something which has actual scientific or artistic worth.  You shouldn't be able to copyright a business card, a sign, or a 128 bit number.  Likewise software doesn't belong in the copyright group.  The source code to a program can't be compared to something like a book, or picture.  It is more accurately compared to something like a blueprint.  Thus software should be patented and not copyrighted.  In order to get a patent on a program you'd have to submit the full source code.  Then in 10 or 20 years when the patent ran out that source code would be known for others to use.

You may be asking if there is really any benefit to society to letting people build on others' works.  As an example look at Disney, every story they have is based on a public domain work.  The irony here is that Disney is one of the biggest reason why we have such absurd copyright terms now.  Since they make the bulk of their money from stuff that was created long ago they have a very strong interest in extending copyrights forever.

These large companies have created the term "intellectual property" to cover trademarks, patents, and copyrights.  The idea is that creative works are somehow property which should last forever.  Just like if you build a house that house will remain yours forever, they think a copyright should last forever.  The key difference here is that a house a real object.  I can't enjoy the house without depriving you of it.  On the other hand a creative work can be enjoyed by everyone at once.  The purpose of copyright is just to give the creator a way to make some money from it, so they have some reason to create it in the first place.

We will never have copyright reform though.  One the major industries the US exports is this "intellectual property", thus it has an interest in extending its legal protections throughout the world.  This is the reason why we have such lengthy copyright terms now.  It is also the reason the US is pushing so hard for ACTA.

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