Friday, June 30, 2006

Design Differences

The word design has many connotations in the English language. It can be a noun, or a verb, but more importantly, it can refer to both artistic works, technical works, and the creation of either.

The differences in the title allude to the differences in protections afforded to artistic works, and technical works. An artistic work falls under copyright, whilst a technical work goes on to become a patent – or more often doesn't. It is this in particular that is the point.

If I draw a picture, it's automatically copyrighted. This writing, since its held on a US server, is considered to have been published in the US, and is automatically copyrighted. What's more its copyright term is until I die, plus 70 years. So, even if I get hit by a truck tomorrow, it's copyrighted until 2076. It has taken no great effort to write this. I had a basic idea, my associate does some assistance with the research, and I write it. He edits it for clarity, and then its published. No great creative effort is needed. I haven't slaved over a tablet for three or five weeks, writing this. Get a patentable device completed this quick, from first concept to public release, and you're some sort of super-designer.

Both I, and my associate are engineers. If I design a device, its not patented automatically. I have to register it. What's more a patent only lasts for 20 years, and is territorial. In other words, if I want my patent in the US, and the UK, I'd have to apply for a patent in both countries

Why are there these differences? A good technical invention is hard to do (although some might claim the same of good artistic works) and involves a lot of work. Of course, the biggest difference between the two is the restrictions on what is patentable. The UK patent office lists them as
1. Has to be new – never been made public before the patent is filed for
2. Be an inventive step – not an obvious adaption of something existing which anyone can see
3. Be capable of existence – if its some sort of perpetual motion machine, its likely to be deined.

There are also more exclusions, but you can read them on the site. All in all, what qualifies for a patent is a narrow field a small percentage of technical output. In some 10 years as an engineer, I've assisted in developing one patent, I've assisted in hundreds, of copyrighted works.

Both copyright and patent were designed for the same thing to reward work in the artistic and scientific/technological/mechanical fields, by allowing the materials creators to profit from their work. The difference is, Patents are for 20 years, copyright can be 50 in the UK, up to 95 or even (considering I personally aim to live another 60 years) 130 years in the US. Then there are all the protections for copyright now. Patents have none of this. If one group infringes another groups intellectual property, in the form of a patent, one group files a civil lawsuit against the other. If it were a copyright infringement, the litigant can similarly file a civil suit, or get the FBI (if in the US) to arrest and seize material. Copyrights have methods now to, it is claimed, protect them from being infringed. Do patents carry these methods? Your computer carries patents in its hardware. Can you take a look at that hardware design – sure you can. Can you then take that, and use it to build your own patent? Well, if it involves an innovative step, and is separately developed, its fine.

DRM, is a new thing in copyright, that has a lot of fans with the copyright crowd. Lets apply it to a patent, lets say a nice new plasma TV. Imagine if you were restricted in the number of people that could watch it at a time, or told that over its lifetime, or until the patent runs out, you can only have the TV in a total of 3 rooms. And of course, you're not allowed to sell or otherwise give away your TV now you've 'purchased' it. It sounds absurd, but these are commonplace restrictions for music. Of course, trying to get around any of these would be a breach of the 'license' you bought the TV under, would be against the law.

The differences do not stop there, however, enforcement is probably the biggest difference between the two. In internal conflicts between the two, in the US, for instance, copyright infringement would often take the form of lawyers initially, or if its major, federal law enforcement; meanwhile patent infringement is just a civil lawsuit regardless – palm and Xerox in their $22.5M fight for instance. In international matters, we have seen in recent statements the US position on it – forcing national economic sanctions against nations for a site, or having quiet words with another nation's government. When it comes to patents, though, There is no government interaction, No wild and lurid statements, or accusations, press releases filled with wild speculation and rhetoric. A New Zealander is challenging the validity of the 1-click patent holds (or at least that's his aim, its not certain it'll even be looked into). Meanwhile, Intergraph, a US company that specialises in surveillance and security systems for military and civilian agencies, is suing NEC, Toshiba, and Fujitsu. Odds are that there will be no government involvement there either, certainly no intimidation or governmental suggestions of arrests.

Why this difference? Why are people so interested in copyright, and the patent left as the poor relation? Patentable material is harder to create than copyrighted material. Patents advance our culture and civilisation, copyrights merely minutely enhance culture. When it comes to world change, was it the jet engine, or “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band that changed the way of life? Microchips or music? The VCR, or the content of the videos played on them?

The reason is clear, copyrighted material is easy to make. The idea then, is to maximise the revenues derived from the works, before they're passed into the public domain. Of course, the public domain is Bad for content producers monetarily – as Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull put it , songs in the public domain “becomes instantly devalued”. For the good of all, however, their value is greatly magnified.

As is stated extensively, patents and copyrights are for creators to be able to profit from their creativity, be it artistic or technological, and thus increase creativity. If patents were to last as long as copyrights, cars would still be a new thing, and they'd cost a million or so, air travel would be as common as space travel is now. Clearly not a good thing. If copyright lasted as long as patents, would there be any difference? Well, there would be greater creative artistic works. When you can receive payment from your works for 50-95 years, where is the impetus to create? Additionally there would be more material to base new works on. Samples, lyrics, melodies, film clips musical scores, cheaply.

It appears, as with many other things, the money aspect has wiped out the reasoning in the first place – creative stimulation. How anyone can see that as anything but bad is a mystery, since it only requires the application of a little common sense.

Ben jones

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