“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” - Oscar Wilde

You may have seen where singer Bob Dylan got an early Christmas present last year by selling his vast music catalog for over $100 million. He is not alone.

Taylor Swift’s music catalog was sold from one firm to another for $300 million last year. At some point she realized she didn’t own rights to her past work. Through a confusing situation, the best I can tell, some company owned her past recordings but not the song compositions themselves, so partly out of spite she proceeded to re-record her songs so she had rights to the new recordings, therefore reducing the value of the old recordings.

Confused? Such is the nature of intellectual property.

In a related vein, while COVID-19 vaccine makers got liability protection for fast tracked COVID-19 vaccines in recent months, some governments then promoted the idea they should also forfeit their patent protections, in order for generics to be produced faster and cheaper for many poor countries.

Patents usually carry the idea that it costs a lot of developmental and technological breakthroughs to get something into a marketable product. To recoup the often immense research, development expense and regulatory filing and testing, the company is awarded patent protection, at least for some period of time.

Ages ago, it was a simpler time, for good and for bad. A performance was necessarily an in-person interaction. In a controlled-entry venue, fans who bought a ticket to get in got to hear the performance, those that didn’t, didn’t.

Scott Joplin and the like sold copies of sheet music. Technology at the time didn’t allow photocopies, but some people might have had hand-copied unauthorized copies.

Since the age of selling recordings, audio cassettes and VHS tapes, as well as PC floppy disks changed things. Everyday, average people could make their own copies.

What are music and software pirates doing? In a digital age, essentially copying series of zeroes and ones. So the governments play copyright police for companies who come up with ideas first.

Author and patent attorney Stephan Kinsella’s mind-bending book “against intellectual property” lays out these concepts in a unique way.

For one thing, there are different kinds of intellectual property. Most legitimate are trademarks — so, say an upstart shoemaker used a swoosh emblem, slogan “just do it” and named their brand after a certain familiar Greek god. This would at least cause confusion in the marketplace and be considered impersonation, if not a sort of identify theft — yeah, come up with your own name.

Patents have their place, but consider if the ancient inventors of the wheel were granted a perpetual monopoly on this design. It would be ludicrous if even today anybody with a car, bike, etc. would have to cough up some royalty payment for the many descendants. So, at some point at least, inventions become part of the public domain.

Intellectual property is different than physical property. Let’s say you own a chair. If I take your chair, you don’t have it anymore, but now I do — that is clearly stealing. But what if you built a chair, I admire the design and make my own chair just like it — you still have your chair and your design.

Like the Oscar Wilde quote above, you could either be flattered by my imitation, or disparage me as a copycat, or seek to sue my pants off. Moral and legal arguments can diverge.

It can get weird, though. Like the Taylor Swift example above.

Pop singer known as “The Weeknd” purposefully dropped the last “e” to not get sued by a German firm known by the weekly two-day event many people live for.

A patent on a tax strategy was once filed but rejected — so no monopoly was granted on a method of filling out government forms.

There was a case here at Mizzou as to whether the market value of a scientific breakthrough was owned by Mizzou or the researcher who invented it. We are well past public universities conducting just basic research to be released into the public domain for the general welfare.

Or, another example: say an agricultural company, whose name is on at least one campus building, makes hybrid seeds for farmers to plant and grow for a harvest but doesn’t want those plant to go to seed for use in next year’s planting. Anybody I mention seed patents to gets a weird feeling about granting a company a monopoly on a plant. In the era of biotech and gene therapies, could human DNA be “owned” by some entity?

We are in a brave new world.

Steve Spellman host “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” at 5 p.m. every Tuesday on 89.5 KOPN.


About opinions in the Missourian: The Missourian’s Opinion section is a public forum for the discussion of ideas. The views presented in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Missourian or the University of Missouri. If you would like to contribute to the Opinion page with a response or an original topic of your own, visit our submission form.

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