Who owns your stuff?
When is our stuff actually, you know, our stuff? Recently a stir was caused when cell-phone unlocking—the practice of enabling your cellphone for use on any cell network with any SIM card—became illegal. Now, with legislation pending in Congress to re-legalize(?) the practice, Kyle Wiens writes that we need to focus on “unlocking” much more technology embedded in other everyday items we supposedly own:
Copyright is impacting more people than ever before because the line between hardware and software, physical and digital has blurred.
The issue goes beyond cellphone unlocking, because once we buy an object — any object — we should own it. We should be able to lift the hood, unlock it, modify it, repair it … without asking for permission from the manufacturer.
But we really don’t own our stuff anymore (at least not fully); the manufacturers do. Because modifying modern objects requires access to information: code, service manuals, error codes, and diagnostic tools. Modern cars are part horsepower, part high-powered computer. Microwave ovens are a combination of plastic and microcode. Silicon permeates and powers almost everything we own.
This is a property rights issue, and current copyright law gets it backwards, turning regular people — like students, researchers, and small business owners — into criminals.
In a related story, the U.S. Supreme Court just ruled that the so-called First Sale Doctrine is viable when applied to purchasing products made for sale overseas and then re-selling them in the U.S. As reported by NPR:
The case involves a part of the copyright law that was aimed at so-called gray market goods. These are U.S. copyrighted products — from textbooks to watches — that are manufactured in other countries for sale there, then purchased and imported to the United States for discounted resale.
Supap Kirtsaeng, a mathematics student from Thailand, discovered that some of his textbooks were being published and sold in Asia for less money. They were identical to the textbooks he used at Cornell and the University of Southern California, except that they were much cheaper and bore an inscription saying they could not be exported. He got his friends and family in Asia to send him many copies of the books, sold them on eBay and made about $100,000 profit.
Needless to say, the publisher of the textbooks, John Wiley & Sons, didn’t like that one bit. It sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement and won in the lower courts. Kirtsaeng was ordered to pay $600,000 in damages….Writing for the [Supreme Court] majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said that to impose geographic limits on the first sale doctrine would make no sense. He cited statistics from retailers indicating that $2.3 trillion worth of foreign goods were imported to the U.S. in 2011, and many of those products were subject to copyright protection when they were made.
Automobiles, calculators, microwaves, tablets, personal computers — all may contain copyrighted software programs or packaging, and many of these products are made abroad with the U.S. copyright holder’s permission, Breyer observed. To forbid their importation unless the copyright owner agreed would mean, in essence, that a car owner whose GPS, radio or carburetor was made abroad could not freely resell his vehicle without the copyright owner’s permission. Therefore, said the court, goods, once sold lawfully — whether in the U.S. or elsewhere — can now be resold in the U.S. without the copyright holder’s permission.
This all comes while Derek Khanna enjoys a mini-celebrity as a copyright reformer. Khanna was the author of the infamous House Republican Study Committee document that include, as Digital Trends calls them, the “three myths” of copyright:
1. Copyright was not created in order to guarantee that content creators get paid, as copyright reliant industries claim; it was created to “promote the progress of science and useful arts,” according to the U.S. Constitution. Khanna adds that the “purpose” of copyright “is to lead to maximum productivity and innovation.”
2. Copyright is not, as some claim, “free market capitalism at work,” writes Khanna. It is the exact opposite: “a government-subsidized monopoly,” thanks to the massive, government-upheld penalties on those who violate copyright.
3. Copyright does not lead to “innovation and productivity,” writes Khanna. He argues that, instead, copyright policy has created “a system that picks winners and losers, and the losers are new industries that could generate new wealth and added value.”