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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

May 15, 2007 at 5:42 PM

Patent Armageddon is here

The terrific Fortune magazine story about Microsoft threatening free software groups with patent lawsuits has one thing wrong.

Patent Armageddon isn’t coming, as the magazine suggests.

It has already begun, and I’m starting to wonder if we should chuck our computers and go back to pen and paper until things calm down.

At least, that was my reaction to hearing that the Justice Department wants to imprison people for life for using copied software and jail people who attempt to infringe on copyrights.

Intellectual-property protections are important and they’ve helped Microsoft build a great business. But they are not a life-and-death issue. There are strong laws already in place that deal with theft and they’ve been successfully used to restrict software piracy in the U.S.

The rules around copyright infringement are more complicated, but that muddiness is why those rules shouldn’t be used to further restrict liberty.

There’s an ongoing debate about fair use of copyrighted material, for instance. Can you make backup copies of copyrighted material? In some cases, yes. The recording industry has accepted that copying CDs is common practice and levies a charge on blank audio discs to cover the cost of this copying. Will you be jailed for exercising a privilege that you’re paying for?

The bigger question, though, is this: Will you be able to tell what’s right or wrong if the law is approved, or will you be bullied and scared into curtailing your own freedom? Throw away the VCR, dear, I don’t want to break the law.

Before going further, lawmakers need independent analysis of the true cost to society of copyright infringement in the U.S. Breathless “anti-piracy” lobbying materials won’t suffice.

That information will help the country decide whether it really wants to launch a War on Copying. We need to know if there really are weapons of mass replication being deployed. Then we can decide if we should let the drug dealers go so there’s room in federal prison for all the guys with photocopied New Yorker cartoons in their cubicle.

I can hear it now:

“Sorry, ma’m, we don’t have the resources to find the scumbag who stole your $20,000 car, but when we recovered its stripped hulk we found a homemade CD music compilation in the glove box. You’ll have to come with us.”

What about digital rights management and watermarking technology? Is that technology failing so badly that draconian new laws are required?

Will anti-copying technology advance, if it’s illegal to research and test the strength and capabilities of digital locks?

As for Microsoft threatening the free software crowd via Fortune, that reminds me of suspicions that Kim Basinger’s divorce lawyers “leaked” that awful voice mail that Alec Baldwin left for their daughter.

Parties in high-stakes negotiations do this sort of thing all the time. They drop salacious tidbits to raise and shape the profile of a case, engage the public and put pressure on their opponents.

The tactic seems desperate, but I wouldn’t bet against Microsoft’s army of lawyers. They practically wrote the book on software patents and must have a good idea where the company may be wronged and where they could win a patent war.

So much for the kinder, gentler Microsoft. We hardly knew ye.

Comments | Topics: Microsoft, Public policy

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