Jake's View

We must not change our tune for the copyright trolls

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 3:57am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 January, 2016, 3:30pm

Hong Kong's copyright protection term is now 50 years, which also lags behind its regional competitors, such as Singapore and South Korea, which are in line with the growing international norm of 70 years.

Letters to the editor, April 10

On any question of the day, a good test of whether we are being set up is how many times we are told that we should do something because Singapore and Shanghai are doing it.

For Shanghai in this case, read South Korea and you get three mentions in one short letter to the editor. My antennae are tingling.

The evidence that Singapore knows what it is doing is, of course, that the government of Singapore says it does, and says so often enough to make your ears fall off if you tune in too long. What this mostly amounts to, however, is sacrificing the welfare of ordinary Singaporeans to some foreign lobby again.

In this case it is the copyright lobby, which is trying to sell the notion of real tangible ownership of ideas in perpetuity. Take note that anything over 50 years is defined as perpetuity in accounting terms and, as the copyright lobby is money driven, accounting terms are what we must use.

This sort of ownership was never intended in copyright. The original idea was that creativity should be stimulated with reward and that this reward should expire with the death of the author. That date was later changed to 20 years after the death of the author to provide for the author's spouse.

But no-one talked of ownership. It was only a limited temporary right.

Now, however, we have such bizarre oddities as Happy Birthday copyrighted. There is a reason you never hear it sung in the movies. The studio has to pay up first, and pay big. At law your own family members may need permission from the copyright owners if they sing it on your birthday.

The questions of when it was first composed, by whom, and whether copyright can even be made to apply any longer remain murky. But the incorporated copyright owners will sue if they think they can squeeze money out of you.

Challenge them in court and they may back off, but at great expense to you and before anyone can clear up whether their title does really stand up in law. Nothing deterred, they will just as vigorously pursue the next victim they think they can squeeze.

What we have in copyright at the moment, in short, consists to a significant extent of gangs of lip-smacking lawyers abusing the process of law to incorporate largely bogus rights for sale as tradable commercial propositions.

This, in large measure, is the reality of what our bureaucrats refer to when they talk of making Hong Kong an intellectual property trading hub. I think they do it innocently. They don't know. They are as much the prey of the lawyer gangs as you and me. The "copyright trolls", as the lawyer gangs are also called, do not enhance creativity. In fact they do the reverse. They inhibit creativity by establishing wide parameters for their copyrights to ensnare anything that may come close.

This is particularly the danger in software copyrights. Any obvious and simple piece of code may copyrighted. Write anything like it and, bang, you're in court in front of a judge whom the trolls have long since learned how to hoodwink. Have it happen it even once and you may give up software writing for another career.

It is even worse in patent law. In the United States the ravages of ubiquitous gangs of patent trolls have seriously inhibited technological innovation. We risk the same in Hong Kong if we sign up too quickly to the invariable pitch of we-gotta-do-it-cuz-Singapore-does.

We have already gone much too far with the Jackie Chan law that prohibits the sale of legitimately copyrighted materials if the copyright owner does not also expressly appoint the distribution agent. This law drove our video rental shops out of business. Jackie Chan said he would move to America if we didn't pass it. We passed it. Jackie Chan moved to America.

Let's not make it any worse. Let's tell the trolls they are welcome to Singapore if Singapore welcomes them, but we don't.