Recently, I’ve been spending time investigating copyrights, keen to find out if it’s cricket for me to impose my vision on certain authors’ long ago work. An author myself, I freely admit, I might not cotton to it were some stranger to have her way with my work, without permission, on a stage, for all to see! Either way, I’d prefer things to be settled without a lawsuit.
My head was so full of copyright implications and loopholes, I was unaware that a parallel situation was blowing up beyond all reason in the world of patents. Such ignorance is a luxury unavailable to legions of small software designers, podcasters, and small business owners, as artist and filmmaker Kirby Ferguson of “Everything is a Remix” fame makes clear in his animated primer, “Rise of the Patent Troll.”
The problem, he says, owes to a gap between centuries old patent law and a new technology that yields “inventions” whose parts can’t be attributed as easily as your average sewing machine’s or cotton gin’s.
Depicted here as hairy, pointy-eared storybook figures, the real life baddies are much more scary—newly formed corporate entities opportunistically seeking to enforce patents for digital innovations they don’t really own. Not surprisingly, they’re targeting the little guys, individuals who don’t have the resources to defend themselves when attacked. Yes, in this context, a fairly renowned comedian can be considered a little guy.
Ferguson joined forces with digital watchdogs Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, and Engine to make the film, but the problem proves too slippery to fully explore in three animated minutes. I think the cartoon is actually bait, to get viewers like me to sit still for the next three minutes, in which the artist turns the camera on himself, to enumerate what citizens can do to make a proposed patent reform bill stick. If it all feels rather urgent, I’m guessing there’s a reason.
For more background on what patent trolls are all about, don’t miss this episode of This American Life.