Intellectual Property Affects My Life

Jason Holt (jason at lunkwill dot org)

February 8, 2002

Most people seem to be only dimly aware of the significance or even the actual nature of intellectual property (IP) law. I get the feeling that people consider it of academic, philosophical value for those who like debating about laws and government. Indeed, my interest began in those areas, but once I realized how much control IP owners have, I've been amazed at how many areas of my life they affect. Here are a few examples; perhaps you've been in some of these situations, or may someday want to do the things I've catalogued here.*

A while ago I conducted the volunteer choir in my church. With the help of a local music professor, we really had some good performances. I'd love to have recorded our singing and put it on my web site for you to judge for yourself, but both recording and public performance of the sheet music we bought are prohibited by law.

Sometimes we learned medleys of hymns which people in the choir had written, or had instrumentalists play descants while the choir sang. Unfortunately, both of these activities involve making modifications to the sheet music, and copyright law calls this "preparation of a derivative work," which is also illegal.

The list of restrictions doesn't end there, unfortunately. Also out of the picture were making copies of sheet music that was only available in a bulky (expensive!) compilation, or which the music store didn't have enough copies of to provide for the whole choir.

One day I had an idea: I could copy the music to transparencies and project them on a screen behind me. That way the choir could see me and the music, and would always know where we were. But this, too, is illegal - in fact, copying to any other medium is considered infringement, no matter what advantages it might offer.

Thanks to IP law, my family (which lives several states away) has never heard my choir perform.

They've only rarely seen me perform my other favorite hobby, ballroom dancing. I've performed many times at my University, which fortunately can afford the thousands of dollars it costs to license the music we dance to when we put on a show. These licenses, once again, don't cover recordings, so only those who can physically come to campus can see us perform.

I had high hopes at my last competition, where a professional photographer took pictures of my partner and me. I paid for prints of 3 pictures he took, and gave him my email address so he could send my pictures to me online. As it turns out, though, he only sent me the address of his web site, which has small, blurred versions of the pictures, with prominent notices warning me that the pictures of my partner and me belong to him. Even the full-size prints I bought are copyrighted, which rules out scanning or photographing them to send to my family.

You can read (and copy!) an article I wrote about dancing in the Wikipedia ( ), a free online encyclopedia. I've been meaning to record video clips of me and a partner dancing common steps so that you can see how the dances look, but I've been putting it off because, once again, the only music I have to dance to is copyrighted.

Fortunately, I know some talented musicians, and if I were willing to pay for the studio time, I might be able to convince them to record some dancing tunes for me to use in my video. We won't be able to do any modern popular songs, since copyright still covers songs written back in the 1920's, but we could use completely original material or works whose copyrights have expired, like Strauss' waltzes. Even here we're not safe - modern printings of such music often include minor editorial changes by the publisher which qualify for copyright protection until long after our children will have passed away.

So much for music. At least I still have my profession in computers... right?

Turning back the clock to the mid-80's, I remember how authors of software for our Atari home computer saved their programs on the unreliable floppy disks of the day in such a way that they were hard to make backup copies of and share with others. Sharing the software with others is illegal of course, even when the publishing company isn't selling it anymore. Today there are emulators which will run these ancient programs on modern computers, but the floppy disks won't work with new computers and it's still illegal to share the programs online.

Later I discovered Bulletin Board Systems and the Internet, from which I could download and use new programs without ever leaving my home. In fact, there was an entire operating system which I could run instead of Windows that I was free to use and share, and even modify. The authors had to explicitly allow this, of course - recent changes to copyright law make all copyrightable works completely restricted as soon as they're created, whether or not the author even signs his name or includes a copyright notice. Thanks to these authors, I can install everything a new computers needs (including "office" programs and games) just by hooking it up to the Internet or using CDs I copied from a friend. This is the exception to the rule, though; Microsoft's latest offerings, for instance, require that you buy each piece of software you need and then connect it to the Internet so that it can get permission from headquarters before you can even install it. Some of it is subscription-based, meaning that it only works for a period of time, after which you have to pay again.

Thanks to free software, I had access to lots of great programming tools, which got me interested in writing programs of my own. This exposed me to the unfortunate realities of patent laws, the same ones pharmaceutical companies have been using to prevent third world companies from producing AIDS treatment drugs. You see, patents give holders the "right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States", and an "invention" can be anything from a method of doing business to software algorithms to mathematical equations.

Have you ever wanted to watch a DVD movie without all its nudity and violence? I did, and realized that it would be a simple matter to write a program which would automatically skip over those bits once they were identified. Quite obvious, really, but the patent office didn't think so, because they issued several patents for the idea around 10 years ago to someone you've never heard of. You've never heard of him because he never even tried to market the idea. Perhaps he thought to sell the patent for an outrageous sum, or perhaps he just didn't want anyone else to be able to edit the movies they watch. Doesn't really matter, because either way it made it impossible for me to even write the software to do it, much less to distribute it as free software.

There's another challenge, too. DVDs are scrambled with something called CSS. It's supposed to require a special key to unscramble the video, and you have to pay DVD makers a lot of money to get one. But some clever folks found where the keys are kept - it had to happen eventually, since the key has to come out before a player can play the movie. That made it possible for anyone to get at the video they paid for when they bought the DVD. Except for one catch. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) made it illegal to circumvent technological controls on access to copyrighted information (no matter how weak those controls are). Even when you paid for the information. And even when you're trying to do something entirely legitamate with it, like watching it and automatically skipping scenes you don't want to see.

Adobe's e-books use even weaker forms of scrambling than DVDs , and a Russian gentleman named Dmitry Sklyarov was recently jailed after giving a lecture on how it worked. One method used was so simple that you probably used it in grade school. I could explain it in about two sentences, but then I might be just as liable as Dmitry under the DMCA.

And that's what Intellectual Property means to me.

Copyright 2002