Money Makes The World Go ‘Round: Is Money Foiling IP Ideals?

June 27, 2014

Music CopyrightYou’ve got to hand it to Christopher Sprigman for telling it like it is. In a story in the Guardian newspaper about the facets of the music industry arguing with each other over copyright laws, the New York University law professor was blunt. “Everyone’s opinion is really just about getting more money and the public interest doesn’t appear, principles don’t appear,” he said. “There is no real principle that drives this, it’s basically just a bunch of people fighting over money.” At first, I thought that was just a touch cynical. During my intellectual property course in law school, my professors talked a lot about the noble purposes of copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets and patents. Protect innovation! Reward creators! Ensure the public can benefit from the arts and sciences! But according to Sprigman, that’s not reality. Thinking about recent news developments, I can’t say I have really seen much reason to disagree.

  • A few weeks ago, I wrote about Malibu Media, an “erotic film” company that discovered railroading “copyright violators” who probably just had their IP addresses hijacked was pretty lucrative. See: The 90-year-old woman who paid up, despite having “no idea how to download anything.”
  • Aereo,  the two-year-old start-up that used tiny TV antennas to access publicly broadcast signals from local TV stations and then streamed them to users’ devices, was essentially killed off by a 6-3 Supreme Court ruling that found it violated broadcaster’s copyrights. A lot of the case hinged on whether Aereo was “performing” works, which is a right only the broadcasters had. That term makes little sense in the context of TV, even if we’re just talking about 1950s technology (which we’re not). So, Goliath wins and David loses.
  • The Washington Redskins will probably change their name soon, not because team officials realized the name was terribly offensive, but because the U.S. Patent and Trademark office rescinded federal trademark protection for the name. That means the team can’t stop anybody from making “Redskins” merchandise, and so will lose millions if it doesn’t start going by a name that can be protected.
  • Big companies like Apple and Google love to complain about patent trolls, but even the Government Accountability Office doesn’t think they’re a huge problem. In fact, most patent infringement lawsuits are filed by the same companies that complain in the first place. But, seriously, down with the little guys!

Sure, intellectual property laws still protect artists and people who invent things in their garages. It’s just that they seem to do the bidding of moneyed interests much more frequently.