Wednesday 5 December 2007

IP And The City

Have just got back from five days of solid partying which started with the three-day EIPIN (European Intellectual Property Institutes Network) conference in Gerzensee, Switzerland. I'll write more about EIPIN in my next few posts, for the moment suffice it to say that it was an extremely positive experience for all involved and an incredibly interesting few days.

Despite being delayed by bad weather over London, I made it back just in time to attend an excellent presentation by Professor Lionel Bently, Herschel Smith Professor of Intellectual property at the University of Cambridge. His lecture, the penultimate Herschel Smith lecture this year, was a quite pleasant talk on the development of trademark from a simple means of communication between manufacturers and consumers to a commodity that can be bought and sold just like any other.

His main argument was that as during the nineteenth century trademarks had for a time judged to be an actual form of property rather than simply a right granted by to the holder for a purpose as many regard them nowadays, the problem of the extension of trademark rights to things like shape marks cannot be judged to be a result of this so-called 'propertisation'. While this may all seem quite a merry way of discussing how many angels may dance on the head of a pin, it was at least a good opportunity to chat with some of London's finest IP people, and sample some perfectly potable wine. I suppose if I had to say why trademarks where entering into areas they have not previously touched on, I would have to say that it is a product of modern advertising methods and branding, and that what happened for a period during the century before last was only marginally germane to that problem, if problem it is.

I just about struggled out of bed in time to make the Queen Mary post-graduate party at the Knights Templar's Arms in Chancery Lane. This was quite simply a blast and was the cap on five days of partying in IP-land. There's just is no city quite like London for night life (though Shanghai comes close), and I'm simply loving life here.

Monday 19 November 2007

A world where music isn't protected by copyright? Don't try it, it's already been done . .

Some writers have been tempted to paint rosy pictures of a much fairer world where copyright doesn't exist. The fact is that there are countries in the world which have flourishing music industries but lack real copyright enforcement, and the situation is not exactly a rosy one. China's music industry has a full pantheon of pop stars who are recognisable by Chinese folk old and young, there are few people in the middle kingdom who can't catawall their way through at least a handfull of songs written over the last fifteen years.

These stars, however, make practically nothing from record sales as genuine CDs are almost impossible to find. Despite government propaganda which regularly trumpets the latest victory against piracy, large pirate CD/DVD stores can be found even in central areas of Beijing and Shanghai.

So how do stars like Jay Chou make their money? Quite simple: fame can be manufactured and sold just like any other commodity, music is simply incidental to this. Jay Chou's face can be seen on packets of everything from Meng Niu brand yoghurt to crisps, as can the mugs of (terrible boy band) F4 and ABC ultra-star Wang Li Hong.

The only problem is that the quality of the music suffers, as artists cannot simply make money directly from selling music except via ticket sales.

QMIPRI Herschel Smith Seminar - The Wrong Side Of The Turn Of The Century?

Tonight I attended a seminar organised by by the Queen Mary intellectual property research institute (QMIPRI) with the title "The Right Side of the Blanket: Music Research, Licensing and the Internet". Stripped of its research oriented plea for understanding and regionalist dissent, this lecture (part of the continuing Herschel Smith series) was mainly an out-and-out call from J.A.L. Sterling for a world-wide licensing body for internet music and video content.

He envisages collecting bodies in each country liasing between rights holders and his global internet licensing agency (GILA), GILA would then be contacted by people who wished to license copyrighted music. In this way people would always have a way of licensing material if they wanted, and the problem of trying to enforce internet rights globally would be solved.

There's one main problem with this solution (as well as, in the FOARP's opinion, a whole raft of minor ones) - it's more than ten years too late. In fact it seems to represent the generational divide that exists in the IP profession right now. On the one hand there is a fairly liberal younger generation, most of whom have no doubt illegally downloaded material from the internet at least once in their lives, and on the other there is an older generation who would never dream of doing so.

People already widely link to music and video available on the internet to illustrate their points, must they go through each one of their links and obtain a license for each one? Why should they now that they have potentially made many such links in the assumption that they would not be called to account for them?

The example of researchers linking to music/video to support a point made in a research paper is a misleading one, these people are worried because they work for large bodies that have a higher likelihood of being called to account that individuals acting alone. The real thing that worries the entertainment industry is internet content displacing sales, something which research hardly threatens.

Sterling's GILA solution would only work if there was enforcement along the line of what the communist authorities in China currently practice on their corner of the internet - mass blocking and censorship administered via internet service providers. Of course our authorities would hopefully use such power only to block copyright infringement and enforce the law as it stands right now. I am in no sense an anarchist, but even I would find this pretty hard to accept.

So what is the answer then? In the FOARP's humble opinion, the internet is hardly likely to change to fit abstract ideas of how copyright should operate. It already exists as a large and free standing body of work which people are unlikely to want to change now. In this case copyright must change to suit the internet.

Will copyright be broken up? Will exemptions have to be written into law world wide? Will copyright dissapear altogether? All of these seem improbable, but not half as improbable as some vast Thunderbirds style organisation (no doubt based on their own little island in lake Geneva) with the mission of licensing IP which is already in use worldwide.

Saturday 17 November 2007

Arcade Fire at Alexandra Palace

Bloody incredible, I'll try and right something about the IP aspects of live performances some other time, but the FOARP has to get some shut-eye.

Thursday 15 November 2007

Did she really just say that?

As part of their new campaign for UN membership, the Taiwan post office has been stamping outgoing post with a "Taiwan for UN" postmark. According to an article in yesterday's Taipei Times, Mainland Chinese officials object to this and are returning all post bearing the marks to Taiwan as

"Taiwan authorities preaching `Taiwan independence' through postal services has infringed on Taiwan compatriots' freedom of communication," said Fan Liqing (范麗青), a spokeswoman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office.

"This has seriously impaired the exchanges of letters between people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, as well as Taiwan people's exchanges with other parts of the world," Fan told reporters.

The FOARP does not see Taiwan/China disputes as any business of his and frankly finds the whole thing deadly boring, but he does care about reasoned argument, and this is the kind of logic that can get pretty tiring pretty quickly.

The new labour contract law and non-competition agreements

According to an article in China International Business by China Law Blog's Steven Dickinson, China's new labour contract law means big changes in the kind of demands that companies can make on their employees -

The LCL imposes significant restrictions on the use of these agreements. The most important restriction is that non-compete agreements cannot be imposed on all employees. Only senior management and other employees with access to critical trade secrets can be required to enter into a non-competition agreement. The agreement must be limited in duration to two years, must be limited in geographic scope to a reasonable area and the employer must pay compensation to the employee during the period that the non-competition restriction is in effect.

Of course the best way of preventing such a contract restricting your future employment prospects is simply not to sign such an agreement, but - as the FOARP can attest to - this can be easier said than done. At least things will hopefully get a little easier for anyone who has signed such a contract.

What rights do authors have over internet content on websites like Youtube?

When a company holding copyright over infringed material recovers damages from another company they accuse of infringing on their copyrighted material why shouldn't the authors, actors etc. be entitled to a share of the recovered damages in the same way they are entitled to royalties from ordinary use? Striking Hollywood screen-writers raise an interesting (and entirely self-interested) point:

Tuesday 13 November 2007

IPI lecture: "Metaphors and moral panic"

Just got back from the latest intellectual property institute (IPI) lecture given by Bill Patry and chaired by Mr Justice Lloyd over at Slaughter and May near the Barbican. Patry is the chief copyright council for Google, and so gave us what pretty much added up to a philosophical argument for fair use, so far so good, but I didn't hear anything about these points -

1) More than half the world's population live in countries where it is almost impossible to find a genuinely un-pirated DVD/CD, how can international copyright enforcement even begin to catch up with this?

2) Technology hasn't stopped moving and the law hasn't even really adjusted to the changes of the last fifteen years - what about the next fifteen?

3) Isn't there a vast disconnect between the law and the way that people actuallly treat copyrighted material?

I'll try to talk about the rest later, but the drinks that I enjoyed with Jack Black, Jeremy Phillips and the delightful Mrs Patry have rather gone to my head, definitely time for bed.

Finally someone mentioned it!

"If making the right impression is paramount, however, I would like to contribute another suggestion that could go a long way. Living in Shanghai, China's most cosmopolitan city, for the last four years I have been continually struck by the vast gulf that seems to exist in people's minds between Chinese and foreigners.

I first discovered this through my hobby, photography, which led me to wander through the city's working class neighborhoods, where at every turn I hear cries of "lao wai."

The words constitute a slightly uncouth slang for foreigner. Literally, they mean "old outsider."

Quite often, these murmurings are accompanied by a mocking, sing-song uttering of the English greeting "hello." The tone is unmistakable, and it is not friendly. This is not to say that it is hostile, either, rather it is said in a way that suggests that foreigners are not merely an object of novelty here, which should certainly no longer be the case by now, but also of slight ridicule. "

This quote from Howard French's "Letter From China" gets a big FOARP "Hell yeah!", for years I have wondered whether the journalists based in China were living in the same country that I was.

In the past their reports would usually include the same cliched stories about quaint customs and impeccable manners that largely disappeared from China when the people who practiced them either fled the country or suffered the greatest penalties for their 'petit-bourgeois' behaviour. Since China's growth became a solid and undeniable fact writers have switched to reporting the economic strides that China has taken in the past two decades and comparing this with the Maoist principles of the past. This, however, is the first time I have ever see someone write about something that is the central fact of life in China for many foreigners and which foreign reporters cannot help but have noticed if they only had their eyes and their ears open.

The simple fact is that foreigners in China are continually subjected to the kind of racially motivated ridicule that Chinese in the west rarely ever face. It is not friendly, it is not that they want to talk to foreigners, it is rarely because they want to practice their English, nor is it due to any of the other reasons that apologists love to bring up, it is simply due to an "Us and Them" mentality whereby foreigners are simply seen as less than people.

As for the term "laowai", it is somewhat more polite than many other names which are given to foreigners within their hearing, but it is not simply another word for 'foreigner'. Hong Kong people do not love being referred to as 'xiangganglao' nor do Taiwanese enjoy being called 'taiwanlao' even though these are just variations on the same theme.

Mr French would like to see this behaviour discouraged by the government, but it is firstly not in the government's interest to make people more sympathetic towards their 'foreign friends', and secondly they almost certainly hold the same views that the majority of the people do, and that's a great pity.

Sunday 11 November 2007

IQ Vs. Nerd Factor

Just saw the listing of degree subjects by IQ over at Steve Sailer's almost totally non-fascist blog, guess which were the top three? (tip: not communications, sociology and needlework)

Yes that's right, physics/astronomy came top with an average IQ of 133, maths came second with an average IQ of 130, but philosophy came third! Yes, that's right, the average philosopher had an average IQ of 129. So the question has to be asked - are philosophers nerds like us maths and physics types or are they off doing their own thing?

Just Plain Cool

Film of a solar flare from NASA, I could watch this for hours -

A Mile End Kaleidoscope

The thing that impresses me most about London is it's simple variety, the simple way in which you can stand outside Whitechapel underground station and see scenes which would in no way be out of place in Dhaka, but if you walk two hundred yards in any direction you can find yourself in totally different circumstances. The sight of islamists hand out flyers and chatting in conspiratorial terms about how "Bush think's he's the second coming", the barbershops with non-stop muslim sermons playing on 'Peace TV', the endless halal shops and 'cultural centres' all might have a visitor to this area thinking that Britain's capital really was being turned into 'Londonistan'. A walk of about five minutes changes this impression.

EIPIN if you want to!

The European Intellectual Property Institutes Network (EIPIN) have chosen me to join their annual junket in three parts, part one (Switzerland) happens in a couple of weeks - and the Microsoft case is going to be centre stage - should be interesting . . .

Are you or have you ever been . . . . . .

. . . a member of the communist party? Well, that wasn't quite what I said, but it was the main gist of the question that I asked a lady from the Chinese Intellectual Property Office (CIPO). Her Answer? "I would rather not answer, the involvement of the communist party in Chinese politics is a result of China's special historical circumstances". I'll take that as yes then, but they really do know that there's something wrong with their government, don't they?

A Thought For Remembrance Day

I have always thought the war poets to be the most chilling of all writers, at times you can almost taste their sense of dread and horror.

(above is page four of a letter from Wilfrid Owen to his mother from the Oxford University archives, the other pages can be found here:

Saturday 13 October 2007

It's Good To Be Back

As any ex-ex-pat knows, returning to your home country can be a bitter-sweet experience. Sweet because as much as you belong anywhere you belong in the country you were born and grew up in , bitter because the reasons you left in the first place are unlikely to have disappeared in the meantime. The best way to tackle it is to make it a forward step and not a backward one, and to keep in mind that there's nothing tying you to that place or any other.

Of course, none of this is seems much good when you are having to scale back your lifestyle to fit the living costs of the developed world, or when you are cursing yet another signal failure on the underground, only branching out into new areas can make up for things that you have given up.

Hence this blog.

I'm going to try and keep in with affairs back in the far east, keep my Chinese polished up and keep my writing skills going by running an ex-ex-pat China blog, as well as making a record of a year in my life that I'm sure is going to be pretty eventful both for me and for the world in general. I'll also see if I can't keep some commentary going on the crazy (well ok, mildly deranged) area of intellectual property and on London living in general - but don't hold me to it!