Scrabbling with IPR

Prithvi just wrote a post deploring the actions of Hasbro against the facebook scrabble-a-like system called scrabulous.  His logic is that scrabulous is morally in the right given the misue of Intellectual Property Rights by Hasbro to defend a 77 year old concept.  Scrabulous has now been removed in the US (see here).  Before going any further I should say that I quite enjoy scrabble/scrabulous (happy for a game anytime (find me on facebook and challenge me) … but do not share Prithvi’s view.

This seems like a fairly complex situation where Hasbro may well have tried to buy the developers out, but the developers held out for too large a sum.  But, there have been quite enough posts on this situation – what made me think as I read Prithvi’s post was my attitudes to IPR.  I realise that I might not appear terribly consistent, though I do try.

On patents, I agree with Prithvi – I am quite comfortable with the inventor/innovator being awarded a patent to allow a temporary monopoly on a really novel idea, to encourage people to look.  The whole pharamecutical industry is based on that concept, and many owe their extended lives to the fruits of those labours.  But, for the good of society, these monopolies need to be temporary.  The novelty also has to be real, not the fatuous sillies of the Amazon ‘one click’ business methods type patents.

However, when it comes to copyrights and trademarks I have no issue with them existing almost in perpetuity, though only if there is a fairly strong ‘fair use’ clause.  My logic on fair use here is that I should not be restricted in using copies in any way I want as long as it is in the spirit in which I was licensed the copy.   Added to this, no-one can predict the middle distance future, and it would be sad if works were lost to posterity in a legal quagmire where they could not be transferred to new media types, but where there was not enough interest to make it economic to do commercially.  There needs to be some limit, but I have no issue with it being generations long, as long as the artifact is not lost.

I also have an issue with the prevention of reasonable derivative works, though it can get murky – see the trouble that the Grey album by Dangermouse got into for a good example of the borderline here.  A trivial knock-off copy with minimal changes that are done basically just to evade IPR seems unethical – this is actually a tougher stance that US copyright/trademark law that says that a game cannot be trademarked or copyrighted … though visual artifacts within it, like the rules or graphics can.  This cuts both ways of course – if the game is already in the public domain then there should be very limited protection.  Can Scrabulous make any claim to be a derivative work?  No, clearly it is anything but.  Absolutely everything about scrabulous matches scrabble right down to the colours of the squares.  It’s a knock-off, plain and simple.  One that is well executed, and has built up a material following … but might does not make right, and in this case, to me, it feels like they are well in the wrong.  They hijacked the concept in a new medium, and them refused reasonable highjack payments.  They deserve to have the franchise taken away from them.

The place where I get apparently inconsistent is in my attitude towards IPR protected things.  As noted, I have no issue with IPR, and indeed might be tougher than current laws in some places.  But, from a personal perspective I really avoid such IPR protected situations.  Our digital music is in Ogg Vorbis format as MP3 and most other formats have some restrictions that could hurt me one day.  This absolutely restricts the devices we can use for playback, though RockBox helps by providing an open source PMP alternative.  We use iTunes for buying music today, but will switch to something less restricted when it exists (e.g. Amazon service that is expected soon).  We run Linux on PC’s at home, and have found it much more functional than Windows for almost everything.  And yet, I confess that Apple devices such as ipods and imacs are fabulously usable – I played with one at the airport recently and was blown away with just how natural the interface is.  I find myself torn by a desire for that super-natural interface, but at the same time pushed way by the IPR contraints.

I resolve this dilemma by looking at the much much longer term.  I find the kind of post scarcity society depicted by Iain M Banks very attractive.  Credibility and Qudos is all important, with possession of scarce resources, whether financial, material or raw labour pretty much an irrelevance.  Even though I find the Apple type devices compelling, I find the post scarcity models so much more emotionally compelling that I just get a bigger kick out of using them.  I also love being able to make everything work together, not being limited to what someone else thought of.  I do not want my imagination limited by theirs.

So, whilst I have no issue with IPR, and think Scrabulous deserves to fail, I look forward to a society where the really valuable stuff is done for the love of it, not the profit.  And, in the mean time I shall get back to my scrabulous game where Prithvi is thrashing me.

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