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AUTHORS

Donna Wentworth
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Ernest Miller
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Elizabeth Rader
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Jason Schultz
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Wendy Seltzer
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Aaron Swartz
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Alan Wexelblat
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About this weblog
Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this weblog are those of the authors and not of their respective institutions.

What Does "Copyfight" Mean?

Copyfight, the Solo Years: April 2002-March 2004

COPYFIGHTERS
a Typical Joe
Academic Copyright
Jack Balkin
John Perry Barlow
Benlog
beSpacific
bIPlog
Blogaritaville
Blogbook IP
BoingBoing
David Bollier
James Boyle
Robert Boynton
Brad Ideas
Ren Bucholz
Cabalamat: Digital Rights
Cinema Minima
CoCo
Commons-blog
Consensus @ Lawyerpoint
Copyfighter's Musings
Copyfutures
Copyright Readings
Copyrighteous
CopyrightWatch Canada
Susan Crawford
Walt Crawford
Creative Commons
Cruelty to Analog
Culture Cat
Deep Links
Derivative Work
Detritus
Julian Dibbell
DigitalConsumer
Digital Copyright Canada
Displacement of Concepts
Downhill Battle
DTM:<|
Electrolite
Exploded Library
Bret Fausett
Edward Felten - Freedom to Tinker
Edward Felten - Dashlog
Frank Field
Seth Finkelstein
Brian Flemming
Frankston, Reed
Free Culture
Free Range Librarian
Michael Froomkin
Michael Geist
Michael Geist's BNA News
Dan Gillmor
Mike Godwin
Joe Gratz
GrepLaw
James Grimmelmann
GrokLaw
Groklaw News
Matt Haughey
Erik J. Heels
ICANNWatch.org
Illegal-art.org
Induce Act blog
Inter Alia
IP & Social Justice
IPac blog
IPTAblog
Joi Ito
Jon Johansen
JD Lasica
LawMeme.org
Legal Theory Blog
Lenz Blog
Larry Lessig
Jessica Litman
James Love
Alex Macgillivray
Madisonian Theory
Maison Bisson
Kevin Marks
Tim Marman
Matt Rolls a Hoover
miniLinks
Mary Minow
Declan McCullagh
Eben Moglen
Dan Moniz
Napsterization
Nerdlaw
NQB
Danny O'Brien
Open Access
Open Codex
John Palfrey
Chris Palmer
Promote the Progress
PK News
PVR Blog
Eric Raymond
Joseph Reagle
Recording Industry vs. the People
Lisa Rein
Thomas Roessler
Seth Schoen
Doc Searls
Seb's Open Research
Shifted Librarian
Doug Simpson
Slapnose
Slashdot.org
Stay Free! Daily
Sarah Stirland
Swarthmore Coalition
Tech Law Advisor
Technology Liberation Front
Teleread
Siva Vaidhyanathan
Vertical Hold
Kim Weatherall
Weblogg-ed
David Weinberger
Matthew Yglesias

LINKABLE + THINKABLE
AKMA
Timothy Armstrong
Bag and Baggage
Charles Bailey
Beltway Blogroll
Between Lawyers
Blawg Channel
bk
Chief Blogging Officer
Drew Clark
Chris Cohen
Crawlspace
Crooked Timber
Daily Whirl
Dead Parrots Society
Delaware Law Office
J. Bradford DeLong
Betsy Devine
Dispositive
Ben Edelman
EEJD
Ernie the Attorney
FedLawyerGuy
Foreword
How Appealing
Industry Standard
IP Democracy
IPnewsblog
IP Watch
Dennis Kennedy
Rick Klau
Wendy Koslow
Kuro5hin.org
Elizabeth L. Lawley
Jerry Lawson
Legal Reader
Likelihood of Confusion
Chris Locke
Derek Lowe
Misbehaving
MIT Tech Review
NewsGrist
OtherMag
Paper Chase
Frank Paynter
PHOSITA
Scott Rosenberg
Scrivener's Error
Jeneane Sessum
Silent Lucidity
Smart Mobs
Trademark Blog
Eugene Volokh
Kevin Werbach

ORGANIZATIONS
ARL
Berkman @ Harvard
CDT
Chilling Effects
CIS @ Stanford
CPSR
Copyright Reform
Creative Commons
DigitalConsumer.org
DFC
EFF
EPIC
FIPR
FCC
FEPP
FSF
Global Internet Proj.
ICANN
IETF
ILPF
Info Commons
IP Justice
ISP @ Yale
NY for Fair Use
Open Content
PFF
Public Knowledge
Shidler Center @ UW
Tech Center @ GMU
U. Maine Tech Law Center
US Copyright Office
US Dept. of Justice
US Patent Office
W3C


Copyfight

Monthly Archives

December 30, 2011

It's Not Just E-Books, Movie Prices Suck Too

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Roger Ebert has a column up this week with his top 6 reasons why movie theater attendance is plummeting. Hint: piracy isn't on the list, though the ease of getting movies in the home via services like Netflix is.

No, once again it's the same deadly duo: high prices and bad customer experience. Prices on both tickets and concessions are sky-high and people seem not willing to pay for it, given that they're likely to have to sit in a crappy theater with an aisle down the middle, deal with obnoxious teenagers and compulsive texters, and have their in-theater options restricted because indie and non-US films aren't getting wide distribution.

In my comments on Dan Gillmor's "Swindle" rant I remarked that I thought e-book buyers were not particularly price-sensitive because they're locked in. For movies that's less and less true and so we're seeing price sensitivity. I wonder, also, how much of this is due to the crappy economy. If people are making good wages and not afraid of losing their job or their house they may not care so much if they pay an extra $3-5 per e-book or per movie. But that's not where we are and I wonder if people who are unhappy with the pricing are expressing part of the larger economic malaise.

(h/t Boingboing where I first saw a pointer to Ebert's column.)

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Markets and Monopolies

December 29, 2011

Still More On E-Book Prices And Complaining

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

After what seemed to be a more-or-less throwaway remark about how he was tired of readers griping about e-book prices, Scalzi this week devoted a fairly lengthy column entry to the topic.

The immediate focus of his ire is a blogger posting under the name of Janet on dearauthor.com, and in particular her entry called "The Entitled Reader". Janet, in her turn, seems to be peeved at being called 'entitled' and to feel that readers - particularly readers in the SF/F genre - have relationships with the authors through which they express their feelings about the authors' works including the prices of such works. Scalzi, in his turn, assembles both his own personal experience and extensive remarks from Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor publishing to defend the proposition that publishers have relationships with readers and do think of readers as their customers and not just retailers.

Having read all of this, and having some experience myself dealing with publishers and authors (and a lot of experience dealing with fans) I think both parties are right to some degree but are talking past each other because they're focused on the issue of the relationship and not on what it means.

To wit: Scalzi and Hayden are correct that SF/F publishers have made serious efforts in the past couple of decades to have their editors connect directly with readers. Janet is correct that - even though many major SF imprints exist within the Big 6 publishers - the actions of the people who work within the SF divisions are often different from and sometimes in direct contradiction to public statements by C-level executives at those publishers.

But the missed point in here? E-book prices are a swindle, and readers are noticing it. Readers who care will complain and they will complain to the most obvious and public faces they can find. As Janet correctly points out, some publishers make it very hard to provide interactive feedback. At best many of them offer just a generic contact form and do their best to give an impersonal corporate Web presence. Hayden is spot-on in saying that some editors have gone headfirst into the social media swimpool and give a very human and interactive experience - but doesn't follow the thread to realizing that the corporate experience feels impersonal and disconnected by comparison.

So while Scalzi continues to be correct that it is not the authors' fault that e-book prices jumped 30-50% overnight he is missing the point of why Janet and Gillmor and others are making these impassioned public complaints. Readers are not stupid people, and readers know when they're being ripped off. People who feel ripped off complain and if your response to complaints is "the doctor is not in" then you're missing the point. It may be misplaced, but I hear the readers' ongoing complaints to authors about prices as a plea for help.

Shocking news: someone is right on the Internet. In fact, two someones are right on the Internet here, but nobody seems to be understanding why it matters.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Markets and Monopolies

December 28, 2011

Gillmor on the E-Book Pricing "Swindle"

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Oh look it's been 20 whole days since I wrote something about the ungodly mess that is e-books this year. TL;DR version: nothing has changed, physical books are still better, you can go now.

The source for this rant is +Dan Gillmor's column in the UK Guardian titled "The great ebook price swindle". In it, Gillmor points out that greed and arrogance (he forgets to mention utter terror) have led publishers to adopt a collusive (and possibly illegal) agency pricing model. The result being that e-book prices jumped 30-50%.

The result is, as Gillmor says, "a terrible deal for the customer." Whether that terrible deal will lead more people to think twice before they buy e-books is still up in the air. Gillmor says it has changed his behavior, so maybe that's so. But I tend to think that once people have taken the plunge and bought an e-book device they want to keep feeding that habit. Ferpetessakes people pay $3 and up for a measly ringtone. I think the demand here is not particularly price-sensitive and in that respect publishers' greed isn't going to have much impact on adoption. Sales figures for December e-book/physical book purchasing should be out in the next couple of weeks and we'll see whether Gillmor or I am correct.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Markets and Monopolies

The Business of Science Fiction Writers is Not Prediction (But Sometimes They Do It Anyway)

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Nearly every science fiction writer I've hung out with or listened to has asserted that his or her business was not predicting the future. They might write about it, but the purpose of writing about the future is not, usually, to say "this is going to happen" (as if they were fortune tellers gazing into crystal balls) but rather to say "here's an interesting projection of what might happen." That's true, but it's incomplete.

Sometimes writing about the future is a way of warning people "If This Goes On..." or saying "Your way of looking at the world is not broad enough; we see things differently." Writers who want to do prediction often do so outside of their fiction. Famously, Arthur C. Clarke wrote about geostationary communications satellites, but he did so in a 1945 scientific article. I was pleased to play a small part in Bruce Sterling's Viridian Design Movement an artistic online commune dedicated to discussion of what a globally warmed world would be like. (*)

So it's fair to say that a writer doesn't write to predict. But SF writers do predict, and sometimes they predict with real clarity, bringing together threads that are loose in the wind and saying "here, this is pointing to THAT." In this category I give you Cory Doctorow's speech "The Coming War on General Purpose Computation", given at the recent Chaos Computer Congress in Berlin.

It's about the first half of the recording's hour. Go ahead and watch it. I'll wait...

Done already? If you're not convinced that he's right I probably can't add much. His recapitulation of how we got into stupid copyright wars, and how copyright wars are going to morph into a war on general computers is both scary and, I fear, scarily accurate. Like much good prediction it's not far-future and believing it doesn't require any leaps of faith. You just need to perceive what's been going on, and going wrong, in the last decade or so, and realize it's not going to get better, it's not going to end peacefully; on the contrary, it's only going to take off. A few weeks ago I suggested that 2012 would see a revolution in drug manufacture; what Doctorow is saying is that the next decade will see a revolution in every industry, from biotech to automotive to medical devices and anything else you can think of.

Doctorow ends on an optimistic note. I hope he's right.

(*) Don't believe me? Google "Wexelblat Disaster". Yes, that's me. I was moderately appalled to discover that was my Wikipedia legacy.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Big Thoughts

December 22, 2011

Will Drugs IP Ever Change? Not if Johnson & Johnson Gets A Say

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Last time I touched on this issue I noted that we still needed alternative strategies to manage IP around life-saving medicines. Doctors Without Borders/MSF has been working on a plan to try and break the logjam, called a "patent pool". The concept of the patent pool is simple: rather than asking any one pharma company to forego its profits while its competitors don't play along, the pool asks all companies with patents on relevant medicines to contribute their patents to licensing arrangements in the pool. The pool's managers license the patents as a portfolio, and distribute any returns to the companies that contributed.

So far so good. In this case, the MSF pool is focused on older HIV-treating medicines. Today's regimen for advanced HIV care involves a so-called "cocktail" of drugs. These drugs are often patented by separate companies so buying or licensing them is complex. Additionally, its hard to get patients to take all of a cocktail regularly and in the proper dosage. Care would be more effective if the cocktail could be administered as one pill containing all the relevant ingredients. But making such a pill requires licensing all the patented medicines. Enter the patent pool. Countries like India and Brazil have the large-scale high-quality manufacturing facilities to make single-dose medicines at the scale needed, if only they can get the license.

So MSF has been going to the patent owners asking them to contribute their patents to the pool. These are patents, generally, on older generation drugs, not the latest and greatest which remain out of price range even in a pool strategy. But even the older drugs would be life-saving for tens of thousands of people.

Which brings us to today's sad update from MSF. In this bulletin they note that despite two years of effort to get public pressure on, Johnson and Johnson have refused to allow their patents on three necessary older-generation AIDS drugs to be licensed through the pool. Merry Christmas, J&J. I hope you can sleep well, somehow, despite knowing how many people you're leaving to die.

(Usual full disclosure: I am a strong personal believer in the work MSF does and a regular, if minor, financial donor.)

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Markets and Monopolies

December 21, 2011

December 19, 2011

Can Legitmix Remix Copyright? (Hint: no)

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Audioporn Central, my current favorite new-music site, pointed to a new music business site just entering "artist alpha" with the goal of legitimizing sales of DJ sets, remixes, and the like called "Legitmix". The theory is interesting but I can't see it working on a practical scale. Still, let's take a look.

The idea is that the creator who uses sampled music (DJ, producer, cover artist, etc) would not sell or distribute their work directly. Instead they'd go to Legitmix and upload their work, then identify the samples used in it. Legitmix encodes the work into a distributable file that the creator can then sell or give away as desired. When the listener wants to decode the file for enjoyment they have to demonstrate ownership of the sampled sources somehow; if not, they can buy the requisite samples through Legitmix's store. Once you own the components, the theory goes, you own a free-and-clear new composite work.

In a universe where everyone cooperates, this might work for simple mash-ups. Some of these are simple A|B tracks containing only two songs. But a good mash contains a lot more and let's not even talk about the hundreds of samples in a full-length DJ set. The amount of work involved on the part of every listener to demonstrate ownership of, or acquire rights to, every sample in your average hour-long set is nearly astronomical. The end user experience of this is going to be awful.

Of course, we also live in a universe where people don't just cooperate easily - if we did, the damned Copyright wars would've been over years ago. Some people don't want their stuff sampled. Some people want to approve the samples' uses. Some stuff doesn't have an easy license-granting authority in the first place (see "orphan works"). Sometimes you can get a license for the base song, but not necessarily the specific performance that was sampled. Et cetera et cetera. The number and amount of legal and contractual complications entailed is enough to stun even a Cartel lawyers, never mind some random start-up company.

What Legitmix is doing is employing fancy technology to shift the burden of licensing work from the creator to the listener. That means you multiply the amount of work by N where N is your number of listeners. Eww. Now there is some attraction to that, in that you might want to price your sampling fees based in part on the listenership. If someone samples you and nobody listens to that sample you might care less than if 100,000 people listen to it. But really, that's a detail. The complexity explosion remains mind-boggling.

I'm reminded of the situations that led to patent portfolio licensing. If you stop and think about it, companies with lots of patents could probably make more money by licensing individual patents to individual partners. Partners would pay only for the patents they needed, and everyone would be happy, right? Except it's so insanely complicated to keep track of all that it turns out to be simpler just to cross-license the entire patent portfolio. Sure, you pay for stuff you don't need but the amount of time and hassle (and lawyer fees) you save with a blanket license more than makes up for it.

Now substitute "sample" for "patent" in the above paragraph and you'll see why I think Legitmix is a non-starter. I give them an "A for effort" and good on them for trying to think creatively about solving the sample-licensing problem but this one fails the basic smell test.

Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Markets and Monopolies

BT Jumps on the "Sue Google" Bandwagon

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

FOSSPatents is rapidly becoming my go-to site for everything related to European patent shitstorms. Yesterday's blog entry recounts how British Telecom is suing Google over, approximately, everything.

BT alleges that Google's services - everything from Maps to Google+ - violate half a dozen patents that BT owns. FOSS includes a scribd link to the complaint and pointers to the six patents in the USPTO system. The patents themselves are old, and dense, and very broadly written. My extremely un-lawyerly opinion is that Google is indeed violating the patents as written, which means that either they pay up or they get the patents narrowed/invalidated. Given my fundamental believe that most software patents are overbroad crap issued without even a semblance of respect for prior art the choice for Google boils down to what would be less expensive: license or invalidation.

Neither is pleasant or cheap and the situation is muddled by the fact that BT is (according to Mueller) the fifth big company to sue Google over IP violations. Google thus has to consider the effect that settling any one of the suits would have on the others.

(h/t +Peter da Silva for the pointer forward.)

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Markets and Monopolies

December 15, 2011

Mediashift Just Slightly Misses the Mark

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Jenny Shank at Mediashift has a column that starts off with the interesting title "The Trouble With Gifting an E-Book". She's right: e-books make much worse presents than regular books, but sadly she misses many of the important reasons why. Shank's column is a lovely bit of nostalgia about the personalization of gifts and the feel of the physical book. All true and good, but really kind of missing the mark. Let me tell you why e-books are lousy gifts:

Books are one-size-fits-all. Unless your reader needs a large-print or Braille edition, a book is a book is a book. The e-book for your iPad friend is not the e-book for your Kindle friend is not the e-book for your Kindle Fire friend is not the e-book for your Nook friend even if they all have the same name. The near-complete lack of interoperability between these devices is stupid beyond belief. Of course, you can get someone a gift card but we're talking about gifting books here.

Books are actual gifts. You give a book, and the recipient owns it. He or she can share it with friends, donate it to a library (unless imbeciles get their way with destroying first-sale doctrine), pass it on to their kids, and so on. When you gift an e-book, you're just letting someone rent it and that rental can be modified or yanked back by the e-book publisher or distributor at will and often without notice.

Book gifting is simple. Find a book, buy it, wrap it, send it along or hand it over. E-book buying remains such a complex mess that there are actually whole Web sites devoted to helping people through the convoluted processes that each seller has established for getting e-book.

My family has long had a tradition of special holiday presents delivered at year's end by "The Book Fairy." I don't think the fairy's going electronic any time soon.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Markets and Monopolies

December 14, 2011

Me, Talking About Copyright And Patents

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Once again I'll be doing a couple of intellectual property panels at the annual Arisia science fiction convention in Boston next month. At least one of them will also feature Richard Stallman. The con is January 13 - 16, 2012 at the Westin Boston Waterfront. Plus we have Phil and Kaja Foglio as Guests of Honor this year, so that should be pretty awesome right there.

I still don't have a final schedule for when the Copyfight-relevant panels are taking place. I'll post that once it comes out.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Events

December 13, 2011

December 12, 2011

Get Your Doctorow On (and help fund EFF)

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

It's been too long since I propped the work that Cory Doctorow has been doing at tracking some of the most egregious excesses of the Copyright Wars.

First up, you might want to check into the philosophical backgrounds for which I recommend his series of columns for Locus Online's "Perspectives" series. Locus is the go-to 'zine for SF/F writers and serious literary fans. Cory's been writing good thoughtful philosophy pieces there this year, of which I have two clear favorites: "Why Should Anyone Care?" questioning why anyone (who reads or writes SF/F particularly) care about copyright anymore; and "It's Time To Stop Talking About Copyright". Here he is talking about not just the utter failure of copyright law over the past decade and a half but the really crucial issue of how what starts as copyright policy inevitably becomes Internet policy and that just makes everything worse.

With that as background you should check out a recent series of Cory posts over at Boingboing where he's been dogging what I think is probably the most frustrating and sorely under-reported story of the 2011 Copyright Wars: the ways in which the Cartel have continued to abuse the system, particularly the DMCA's takedown provisions. I wrote some months ago about the crucial importance of the DMCA's Safe Harbor provisions but the Cartel is exploiting its way around those provisions by abusing the poorly implemented notice-and-takedown procedures of sites like YouTube.

For further edification: a summary post, referencing Doctorow's Guardian column, called "YouTube's Real Pirates", and don't forget to follow the story of UMG going rogue as well.

Oh, and there's a good chance the US Government (Senate) may get its fingers into this pie: according to Boingboing and Ars Technica, Senator Ron Wyden has promised to get up the nose of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the DHS over domains that were seized based on (shaky) claims of copyright infringement.

Finally, Boingboing and others have pointed out that I've been remiss in noting that the EFF is still fighting the good fight for intellectual property and privacy. If you're like me, then you're putting together a year-end charity list and you might want to know that donations are being matched, at least for a while longer, making your contribution count double.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Interesting People

December 8, 2011

E-Book Pricing War Gets DOJ's Attention

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Remember back in August I noted a class-action suit around alleged e-book pricing collusion? Well now the feds are involved. Yesterday the L.A. Times reported that the US DOJ is investigating "potentially unfair pricing practices" by the big five book publishers. DOJ joins Europe's cops and some states' attorneys general who've all said they are investigating.

Investigation is a long way from indictment, however, and I suspect we won't see indictments come out of this. If the big publishers feel the heat they'll probably enter into some kind of negotiated settlement promising to play fair. And the prices of e-books will remain sky high.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Laws and Regulations

Why Is Anyone Even Vaguely Surprised By This Shit Anymore?

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

News flash: the government is incompetent. It is manipulated by ignorant selfish thugs from the RIAA into using extra-legal proceedings to shut down speech (blogs, in this case) that the Cartel doesn't like.

I mean, seriously, we're in roughly the 12th or so year of the Copyright Wars and this is not even vaguely news. I should go back in the Copyfight archives and dig up my old postings like the first time the RIAA used the cops (L.A. at that time) or the first time I noted that the Cartel had taken over DOJ more or less wholesale. But I can't be arsed to do it - the song remains the same year in and year out and I'm tired of it.

Still, props to Techdirt for its extensive and meticulous documentation of this latest manifestation of the disaster.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Abuse

December 6, 2011

ZDNEt: Apple is in Worldwide Patent War

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

In last week's long ramble I wrote that nobody seemed to be saying clear things on what Apple was up to. Ask and ye shall receive, I guess. Today +Dan Gillmor pointed to a "Patent Absurdity" column by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols on ZDNet.

Vaughan-Nicols is pretty damned clear: Apple is engaged in a world-wide war on Samsung and Android in an attempt to drive them out of, and monopolize, the tablet space. There are at least nineteen related lawsuits happening in nine different countries as Apple tries to use its patent portfolio to bludgeon competition out of the marketplace. No wonder I was confused.

Vaughan-Nicols notes that this massive campaign is starting to draw regulatory notice, which is not bad but kind of a case of the horse already having left the barn. If the problem is the overuse of overbroad patents to monopolize a marketplace then the answer isn't to retroactively fight those patents; the answer is to tighten up the patent-issuing system so that crappy overbroad patents stop getting issued in the first place.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Markets and Monopolies

December 2, 2011

Will the Drugs IP World Ever Change?

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

I promise I'll talk about drugs in a minute, but first I want to meta-introspect...

There are a lot of tabs I open in my Copyfight window. Most of them don't make it to posts because they're not well-enough developed for me to say something about, or because someone else is saying all I want to say about something. For example FOSSPatents has been dogging the Apple-Motorola patent suits story extensively. I confess I don't understand what Apple is up to here and nobody else seems to have anything clear to say about it.

As I mentioned the other day the grinding trench warfare in online music mostly bores and frustrates me. Look here, Ars Technica will tell you about yet another case in which the Cartel issued bogus takedown orders. This story could have been published any time since the DMCA became the law of the land and it would be essentially the same story. Props to Ars for continuing to cover it.

Then there are stories that never quite materialize, despite my hopes that they will. Earlier this year, news went out that some of the most popular (blockbuster big-selling) drugs were going to go off-patent this year. For much of the past two decades the drug industry has made huge profits off these blockbuster drugs - hundreds of billions - and patents have played a key role in protecting those profits. Patents prevent other companies from copying the drug and selling it cheaper or making a generic version. Drug companies have developed an elaborate rolling shell game of patenting in which they continue to protect their drugs by developing variants, improvements or new delivery mechanisms for the drug that can then be patented. A drug originally marketed (and patent-protected) as an injectable may then be re-patented and further protected in pill form or inhaler form.

The problem with this is that sometimes these medicines are essential, life-saving treatments and intellectual property ends up killing people. This is usually justified by the huge expenditures necessary to create and test a drug as well as shepherding it through the FDA approval process. The figures I've seen for that range from USD 800 million up to 2 billion dollars. Of course, I've also seen figures claiming that drug company spending on advertising and promotion dwarfs their spending on R&D, by up to 6:1. So I'm not wholly sympathetic to big drug companies crying poverty.

At around the same time the stories about drug patents ending hit there was an interesting item on my local PBS station, WBUR, about one-person drug companies. The idea here was that these companies - often a sole proprietorship of someone who had spent decades working at a larger pharma company - could provide a much cheaper way to get new drugs into the pipeline. You still need a big organization to run the large trial studies that the FDA requires, but the process of drug design, modeling, and small-scale testing can be done by renting lab space and equipment at about 1/10th the cost of a big company doing it.

Sadly, despite the promise of new ideas and cheaper ways to get things done, nothing much has materialized on this front. So the story sat in my unfinished file for months and probably would have been dumped if not for two related items that came through my news stream recently. The first is a nice little five-minute piece from PBS News Hour on the ways in which companies have dragged out the last bits of life from their patent-protected drugs and also the multi-billion dollar question: is the era of blockbusters over?

If it's true that drug companies can no longer depend on huge-selling drugs to prop up their profits then they may have no choice but to diversify and to farm out production steps to cheaper alternatives. 2011 didn't see any big changes, but I'm now wondering if 2012 may be the first year of an upheaval in the drug business such as we've seen this year in the publishing business.

And finally, I got a note from one of my favorite Congresscritters, Bernie Sanders on a proposal he's made in honor of World AIDS day: an alternative method for rewarding the work of drug developers, big or small.

At its heart a patent is a government-granted monopoly. It's a quid pro quo that's so fundamental it's even in the Constitution - you do these useful things and in return you get all these legal protections. But there's nothing to say we couldn't also have another quid pro quo, and that's what Sanders is proposing. Drug companies would forego their monopoly protection (which comes with no guarantee of income) in return for guaranteed income with no monopoly. Specifically, Sanders is proposing the government fund a $3 billion/year pool of prize money that would be outright awarded to innovators. Interestingly for us open-access types, Sanders is also proposing that at least 5% of that money be set aside for "any individual, business or nonprofit organization that openly shared information, data, materials or technology that contributed in a positive way to the development of new drugs."

In the current economic climate and political deathlock I doubt Sanders' proposal will go anywhere, but I am pleased to see at least some people thinking creatively about new ways to handle intellectual property in tricky circumstances.

And to my few readers who made it this far, thank you for suffering through with me. I'll try to make my posts more coherent as a general rule.

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December 1, 2011

Another Problem with Paywalls and DRM

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

The canonical discussion of access-control mechanisms such as paywalls and DRM is that people ought to pay for stuff. That's not a wholly ridiculous idea; I've repeatedly asserted that creative people ought to get paid for what they do.

The problem? How do you know who has and who has not paid, particularly when you present your content in multiple ways on multiple platforms? This was brought to my attention by a column written by usability expert Jakob Neilsen.

Neilsen critiques the Wall Street Journal's iPhone app for its confusing user interface. In particular, the app appears to be asking people to pay twice for WSJ content. This causes the app to get horrible reviews. Neilsen points out that a fairly simple redesign could fix this particular app's problems, but I see this as symptomatic of a bigger issue.

By paywalling its content, the WSJ has taken on the burden of keeping track of who has and who has not paid. And, sensibly enough, the human being who pays for the content feels like she ought to be able to access the content she paid for, whether it's on her desktop or her mobile device. In fact, what is happening is that the WSJ, through poorly thought-out design, is transferring this burden to the end users who are then pissed off by being asked to pay twice for the same content.

Entities (people, corporations) who lock up their content behind automated mechanisms need to start paying attention to this, or they're going to be dealing with a lot more pissed-off customers. Paywalls already cut your subscriber base significantly (90% or more from figures I've seen). How much does it cost you to alienate that last 10%?

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