I’ve been following patent cases for years and the Aaron Swartz trial situation/suicide since he was indicted in 2011. People are constantly debating whether or not someone technically infringed a patent during patent cases or, in the situation of Aaron Swartz, if someone was in violation of a specific law. I think those questions miss the point. Who cares if a law was broken? I know, many of you are saying, “Whoa! What are you saying? Have you gone off the deep end? Laws are laws and you have to follow them!” You’re right of course, but so am I.
The real questions that we should be asking are, “Why do these laws exist? And do they deliver the intended consequences?” Think hard about these questions. Why do we have patent and copyright laws? To allow companies to sue other companies for exorbitant sums and pay ridiculous amounts of money because someone’s product uses “a method to allow users to pay by clicking a single button” or “a method of creating a digital playlist”? I don’t think so. I think that goes against the intent of the laws, which was to protect innovation. The thought was that we wanted to prevent a company from waiting for another to create a nontrivial innovation and then quickly copying the product and driving the innovator out of business. That would greatly reduce the incentive of an innovator to invest heavily in research and development when everyone would benefit from their investment of capital without incurring any of the cost.
If you were to ask me to tell you the purpose of intellectual property law based on the results I see in the marketplace, I would reach a different conclusion. I would say that the purpose of intellectual property law was to allow businesses to apply for patents covering any conceivable possible future innovation or business method even if they never intended to utilize them in order to later extort money from companies that actually bring said product to market. Or maybe the purpose is to allow large companies to create large troves of patents in order to prevent any new competition from coming to market. Or maybe just to employ a massive amount of lawyers at high salaries doing jobs that deliver little benefit to society.
I’m not saying that intellectual property law is unnecessary. I’m also not saying that lawyers are useless. (My brother-in-law actually is one) What I’m saying is that intellectual property law as it is now structured and enforced is a failure insomuch as it doesn’t deliver the outcome that it was intended to deliver. It also makes the free market less efficient because it ties up an extraordinary amount of capital in creating and defending useless patents. The main value of these patents has become what they allow a company to extort from another in return for a supposed “infringement”.
It seems like laws have gotten away from us and their original purpose. There are so many laws protecting so many things that even something as minor as what Aaron Swartz did, which was copying a bunch of electronic documents in an inappropriate manner can mean a huge potential jail term and fines (35 years & one million in fines). Even when JSTOR dropped the charges, the federal government continued to pursue criminal charges. If Aaron was guilty of damaging MIT, civil charges could have been pursued. His transgressions were not violent or destructive and they didn’t affect our federal government in any way. His prosecution from my viewpoint was little more than the federal government trying to make an example of an activist that they considered to have stepped out of line. I would content that taxpayer dollars could be better spent elsewhere and if anyone had been damaged, they could have been made hole through a civil case, which could have resulted in him reimbursing them for any damage he may have caused. The laws and the government in this case are overreaching. Of course, that’s just my opinion. What’s yours?
Want a little more background on the case and the laws broken? Check out this piece from The Verge.