Feb 162012
 

I’m a big fan of Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” video series, which explores how the evolution of different types  of media is actually pretty incestuous. The premise of the series is something that appeals greatly to common sense: most everything that we come to enjoy is derived, repackaged or otherwise morphed from one or more ideas that came before it. If you listen to anything on the radio nowadays or look at what’s playing at your local multiplex, you’re quickly made aware, to a nauseating degree, how little original content exists. Original ideas are hard to come by, and even harder to transform into anything of value. One could argue that in today’s society, no idea is truly original at all.

The first three installments of Ferguson’s series were hard not to like because they didn’t judge the act of taking or “borrowing” from ancestral work to make something new and sometimes better. I got a chuckle seeing all of the ways Quintin Tarantino pulled from dozens of classic films to create his work, right down to the camera angles. It seems that this unfettered sourcing of prior work could do nothing but add to the value of the original, except in the case of remakes like “The Last House on the Left”, which was horrible by any account.

The fourth (and perhaps last) installment, however, moves from the world where everyone benefits from artistic borrowing and focuses on the evolution of the system designed to protect the rights of the developer: the concept of intellectual property. He begins by pointing out that life on earth began as a single-celled organism that over billions of years spawned every living thing. By all accounts, that turned out pretty well. This used to be the case with ideas, but through a series of acts designed to make the act of creation more valuable than the act of copying, the ability to borrow has become compromised to such an extent that it’s hindering our progress. I agree with this generally, but Ferguson gets a little loose with some of the details. You probably won’t be surprised to read that the exception I take involves how Apple is depicted as using intellectual property, which he bundles together with the acts of patent trolls like Paul Allen, who uses a “suing to make a buck” philosophy to line his pockets while stymieing innovation.

He opens, as anyone who would want to lump Apple together with patent trolls, with Steve Jobs’s statement that “great artists steal”, then leaping to the Jobs quote that appeared in the Isaacson biography of Jobs wanting to go thermonuclear on Android because it was a stolen product, as if these are diametrically opposed viewpoints. I submit that the types of things “stolen” by Apple do not resemble those things “stolen” by Google. Jobs took the embryonic ideas from his (paid) tour of Xerox’s PARC research and rendered the first true consumer GUI. Google took an established, extremely successful product and swiped significant components of what made it a successful in the market. Unfortunately for Google, Apple had already been burned on the intellectual property playing field and worked meticulously to patent the parts of the iPhone (and later iPad) it felt were original. The inspiration and subsequent iteration of PARC’s ideas by Apple did not happen the same way that Google took from the iPhone, which leads me to my counterpoint: let’s look at a famous example of what happens if one cannot protect their innovations.

The history of Apple’s beef with Microsoft over the “look and feel” of the Macintosh OS is well-documented. Apple commercialized the modern desktop metaphor and Microsoft brought a very similar product to market. Apple unknowingly allowed Microsoft the legal right to do it, and I would argue that this turn of events, combined with Microsoft’s decision to license its OS to several manufacturers, led to its ascent and eventual dominance in personal computing at the expense of Apple. This inability to leverage any intellectual property framework to protect its investment almost led to the company’s demise. This is a case of the best product being pushed to the verge of obsolescence in part because they couldn’t protect their invention. Once taking back the reins at Apple, Jobs was able to radically innovate again, this time making a point to protect the company’s ideas to the greatest degree possible. His motivation was not to land lucrative licensing agreements with imitators, but to do what intellectual property was intended to do: protect the investments of the creators from hacks looking for shortcuts to success.

You can argue that intellectual property is the devil, but the fact of the matter is that its a tool. Paul Allen wants to use it to squeeze money out of its loosest interpretation without having an actual product in the real world to represent it; Apple wants to protect the stuff it makes. The “social evolution” that Ferguson speaks of in the final installment of “Everything is a Remix” is a nice concept, and the current state of intellectual property-based assaults by some parties makes the idea even more intriguing, but at its core, in a world where companies spend billions to bring their products to market and stand to lose that and more if those products are allowed to be “slavishly copied”, it’s a much more romantic than practical one. The absence of innovation protection can be as bad as its abuse.

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