PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 March, 2007, 12:00am

'It is incumbent upon the law enforcement agencies to ensure effective protection of private property, be it chickens or be it intellectual property rights.'

Timothy Tong Hin-ming,

Commissioner of Customs and Excise

I'm sure Mr Tong's audience of copyright holders and their agents cheered on Thursday when he made that comment and others of its nature at a conference on intellectual property.

The world is a simple place as seen by such people. Theft is theft and pulling a music recording off the web without paying for it is theft as much as stealing a chicken egg is theft.

Just think about it. The hen has copyright to that egg. It's her DNA in that egg, after all. How much stronger a proof of copyright do you want? Taking it from her without her permission is just straight theft and it's no excuse to say that it wouldn't really hurt her much and you didn't know that hens had rights.

Umm ... okay, folks, a thousand pardons. On thinking that last paragraph over, I seem to have got my analogies mixed up. Hens don't have rights. Only hen owners have rights. It's like slaves and slave owners, you know.

Ahh ... umm ... no, sorry, that one also doesn't seem quite to work. Perhaps I should just give up trying to play with analogies about rights. Perhaps my trouble is that I don't live in as simple a world as the one inhabited by Mr Tong and his chorus. Everything is so simple in their world. I wish I could live in one like that.

But in the world where I live, which is the third planet orbiting a minor star called the Sun in the Milky Way galaxy (where is your world, Mr Tong?) intellectual property is historically a convenience given protection only as a means to an end.

We are dealing with a legal privilege, not human rights.

The object was to encourage people to create and invent and it was thought that giving them some control over sales of their creations and inventions through copyright and patent would serve the purpose.

But it was always limited, in the case of copyright to the death of the author and in the case of patent to something like 15 years after granting of patent in most countries. Note the term. There was no out and out right granted. After 15 years, anyone could use the invention without paying the inventor. He still had the right to be identified as the inventor but that was it.

This has now changed. Patent terms have been lengthened and copyright terms even more so. In the United States, for instance, the infamous 'Disney Law' has extended copyright to a minimum of 70 years after the death of the author. Walt Disney died in 1966, you see. Do the arithmetic on depreciated value.

All this might be justifiable if it contributed to creation and invention but it does not. Leave aside that the original artist of the music CD you purchased is lucky to get 3 per cent of your purchase price after the Hollywood moguls have jammed their hands in the pot, there is now such a dense web of copyright and patent extended over almost everything that creation and invention have been stymied.

A filmmaker friend of mine, for instance, recently showed me part of a beautiful documentary he had made on a Vancouver dance studio. It was a private viewing. Before he takes the film public, he must find about C$400,000 (HK$2.69 million) to pay lawyers and licence fees for copyright to details as slight as a background photograph. I'm afraid that you may never have the chance to see it. Copyright laws will stop you.

And because this is now so commonly the case, there is very good reason to say that copyright and patent laws have become counter-productive and ought to be relaxed significantly around the world. They obstruct rather than serve their original purpose. The balance on protection has swung too far one way.

In fact, I would say this even about copyright breaches in things such as fake handbags and watches. They demonstrate that these goods are often very cheaply made and high retail prices reflect only advertising hype. In a sense, the fakers do us all a service by embarrassing brand name owners who overcharge.

I have my reservations about this, of course, when it comes to faking medicine and critical aircraft parts. I don't applaud Robin Hood in all his doings.

But the point is that Mr Tong's customs service has obviously not thought twice about giving overwhelming and uncritical support to largely foreign lobbyists who misuse copyright laws that they themselves have extended far beyond the original purpose of such laws.

These people have distorted the market for music, videos and software so that they can overcharge us for their wares. They have also made a stinging insult of it by convincing our government to pay for enforcement of the rules they have drafted to gouge us.

If you want so desperately to work for Hollywood, Mr Tong, why don't you let Hollywood pay your salary, too? With the way you ignore the interests of your own people, why should we allow you to dip into our tax revenues?