Thursday, March 4, 2010

the law needs to change

This is an addendum to the post on our outmoded copyright law.

The dominant narrative of the Apple-versus-HTC lawsuit is that it's really a proxy war between Apple and Google (and as a fanboy of both, it hurts me deeply when mommy and daddy fight). As such, the story will end with an out-of-court settlement worth more money than most of us will ever see in our lifetimes.

But if it didn't, if the arguments were followed through to their logical conclusion, the Times' Bits blog has some interesting takes on the implications of Apple's patent infringement argument:
Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School, outlines a similar case in his book “The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It.” In 2004, TiVo sued the satellite TV distributor EchoStar, accusing the company of infringing on its patent on DVR technology. After some drawn-out litigation, TiVo ended up winning the case, and a Texas judge ordered EchoStar to disable the DVR functions on most of its set-top boxes. An appeals court is reviewing the matter.

“The judge simply ordered EchoStar to connect to the DVR boxes via the Web and destroy the functionality,” Mr. Zittrain told me in an interview. “Patent law is a completely different universe online. That means if the court were to side with Apple and issue an injunction that insists HTC kill the phone, or at least some of its functionality, they easily could.”
Just as entertainment companies are grappling with selling digital (non-physical) copies of their wares, a company could alter or eliminate the functionality of smartphones in their consumers' hands simply by flicking a switch. Remember Amazon's Kindle/1984 debacle?

There are some voices -- as there have always been -- calling for sanity to prevail:
Eric Von Hippel, a professor of technological innovation at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management, [...] said that these lawsuits pointed to a bigger problem with the patent system. “It’s a bad scene right now. The social value of patents was supposed to be to encourage innovation — that’s what society gets out of it,” he said. “The net effect is that they decrease innovation, and in the end, the public loses out.”
We're not holding our breath for change on this front.

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