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.”

So we have a 100+ year old “Happy Birthday” and other interesting items copyrighted. All because the right entities are lobbying the right people.

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11 years ago

I fired AT&T and Apple for exactly these reasons. I more than fulfilled my contract with AT&T but I still couldn’t completely unlock my iPhone. Apple claimed it was due to contracts they had with AT&T. So I dropped AT&T and went with a Nexus 4 phone. Completely free to use any carrier I want.
Additionally, did you know you don’t own your mailbox? Yeah, you need to keep it clear and functioning, but USPS “owns” it. Even if I say it’s ok, non-USPS carriers still cannot use it.
How about a few years ago when guys from Metallica and also Garth Brooks tried to say that we’re not even allowed to resell used CDs? They tried to argue that we didn’t buy the CD, we bought a non-transferrable license to the data on the CD.
And the six feet between the street and your yard isn’t yours either. The town keeps the right to that area (unless you already have sidewalks). And even then, you the property owner must keep those sidewalks clear.
Imagine that. One day you have grass all the way to the street. Then one day the city takes away six feet of your property from boundary to boundary and installs a cement sidewalk. Now not only can people walk on it, where they might have been trespassing before, but you’re also legally required to keep the sidewalk clear of debris, snow and ice.
Oh and if you think you “own” your home, try not paying property taxes for a little while…

Dutch Lombrowski
Dutch Lombrowski
11 years ago

1 and 3 are just wrong. How else could “promoting science and useful art” be interpreted than to say that the purpose is protect those individuals’ interests? You promote the above by protecting the profit incentive.

11 years ago

Because, Dutch, copyright law restricts who can use freely floating ideas and media, how, when, and where. Copyright law is a balancing of the good of society being able to efficiently access, utilize, and improve upon ideas, and the good of preserving incentives for creators to innovate. Copyrights and patents themselves can inhibit innovation because there can be huge cost and obstacles associated with obtaining the rights to build upon the works of others. For example, if you have to obtain 10 different independent patent licenses for components to build and market your own invention, that’s essentially impossible to do. Also, people do things for reasons other than money, and there are plenty of ways to make money other than putting media on a piece of plastic are selling it in hard form. My position is that if you have a highly valuable idea and can’t figure out a way to make money off of it, you aren’t thinking hard enough. Maybe Britney Spears should have a net worth of $20 million instead of the $200 million that her government-enforced monopoly has produced for her.

11 years ago

Copyright is a short term, government sponsored monopoly on an idea for the sake of a particular purpose: to help an inventor make their money back and provide and incentive to innovate in the first place.
That’s it.
Copyright shouldn’t last any longer than it absolutely has to.
For conservatives out there: its government picking who was first to come up with an idea, and then assisting them in holding on to an arbitrary monopoly.
It’s official. Copyright is now trying to trump property rights. If someone is a true conservative, they will understand why this is a huge problem.. I’ve never understood why alleged conservatives support copyright. I think it has something to do with the fact that the word “intellectual property” finds its way into the conversation. That’s bunk. Ideas are not land, money, food, etc.
For progressives/liberals, this is equally bad news. This means the government sucks, giving people cause to hate it all-the-more. It also means that the gov’t is more likely to side with the lawyered-up companies. It also means that only the bigger corporations are the ones who can survive the patent troll onslaught, so the struggling little guy all-the-more has their “means of production” stolen… so to speak.
Time to reduce copyright back to where it belongs… a few years at best, with patents being handed out by the hundreds rather than the hundreds of thousands. Screw Mickey Mouse, he belongs to the world now.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

Some good news, the copyright on “Happy Birthday” expires in 2032.

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