We Need Woody To Remind Us How To Share

I was at a block party on Saturday, which, being in Brooklyn, had a band playing on a stoop that were pretty damn good. One of the band members, before playing Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” introduced the famous song by telling a story about Guthrie, who was the folk singer from the 1930s onward that inspired Bob Dylan and hundreds of other folkies. Anyway, the band member said that Guthrie had a sign posted when he played, or outside his door, that said something like, Anyone Who Reproduces In Of These Songs In Full Or On Part Is A Mighty Good Friend Of Mine! Boy, that attitude is in short supply. It’s clear that the copyright, patent and trademark systems of intellectual property have become perverse distortions of their original intent. Rather than inspire and reward innovation and creativity, these systems now almost certainly impede innovation and creativity. This is because the courts with some help from Congress have defined intellectual property so rigidly and expansively, that the typical process of creativity is short changed. One can’t invent a new song, a new device or a new piece of writing because every where one turns you are stepping on someone’s legally defined property rights. What’s helpful to learn is that this is not an entirely new situation. With patents, I was just reading in Richard White’s great new book, Railroaded, 19th century railroads benefited for the first few decades of a culture and practice of open sharing. Engineers and firemen would modify engines and fireboxes on the spot, and these inventions were swapped around and evolved. White compared it to the open source system among software developers now. Later though, this practiced faded out as companies began to patent their inventions more systematically, and this impeded progress in railroad development. Something similar, although in reverse order, occurred in the early 20th century when the Wright Brothers and the Glenn Curtiss were both struggling to develop commercially viable aircraft. The Wrights, who had been the first to fly a manned plane, sued Curtiss for patent infringement, and much of the normal process of innovation was stymied. Under the pressure of World War I, the federal government got the Wrights, Curtiss and other airplane manufacturers to form a “patent pool,” so inventions could be freely traded and innovation proceed more quickly. Would such an arrangement happen today. At the moment, despite some bright spots, the environment is way too restrictive. Documentary filmmakers now often edit reality to take out any logos or trademarks on someone’s T-shirt, for fear of being sued for illegal use of intellectual property. Mickey Mouse will be providing royalties to Disney when the last sun burns out, I wager. Much of the tech world competes to patent anything and everything. What we should remember about intellectual property is that it is a social good. It exists only because we as a society say it should. That being the case, we should remember, as a society, to continually ask whether these systems are living up to the reasons for their existence: improving society as a whole.