Tue, 21 Jun 2005

This IP stuff is complicated!

Spoke with Tim Gaden, free-lance journalist writing a short article to appear in September's APC magazine on Open Source IP issues. Discussion took an hour, and ranged over software patents, the swpat fight in Europe, anti-circumvention, and the AU-US Trade Agreement. They're separate and complex issues, but they're all potential threats to Free/OSS software. People who read this blog know that they're issues I feel strongly about, but here they are in sound bites.

Copyright provides overly strong protections on software (trade secret on source + copyright on binaries, world'd richest man due to software copyright, ongoing monopoly problems). It is hard justify additional incentives, such as patents, which imposing massive costs on small developers (rproxy, ffmpeg, landmine, no other industry gets both). Add in the flawed nature of the patent system (business method patents, hyperlink patent), and it's a nobrainer that software development is better without patent "protection". See my previous document on this.

Laws which seek to ban "digital lockpicks" (aka circumvention tools) should be focussed on things which have no significant purpose other than copyright violation. This encourages manufacturers to ensure digital locks protect their actual copyright rights, rather than locking up all access in a landgrab for control. Consider region coding: a manufacturer wouldn't protect this by a digital lock if it risked giving a valid excuse for manufacturing digital lockpicks. As it is in Australia (and even more so in the USA), the law protects the lock itself as long as there's a copyright somewhere nearby. So manufacturers use it restrict as much as they can, and you don't actually "own" what you bought in a real sense.

The Australia-US Trade Agreement binds us to some things we already do (such as the one year to file a patent, which prevents us implementing a serious obviousness test). It also forces us closer into line with the US's dreaded DMCA, which is the worst overreach of anyone's laws in this area. Nonetheless, the government seems to be listening (now the negotiations are over), so it's slimly possible we will end up with something more sensible.

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