Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Life Isn't Fair

It's an old saying. It's a true saying. Is that any reason to surrender to it? Just because life is unfair, I shouldn't complain? I should just let the victors write history?

I've an old saying, "If your cause be just and honorable, why the need to fucking lie?"

Case in point. I recently finished a whole slew of books about inventions, inventors, and innovators. What did I learn from reading this?

It's Okay To Steal.

Almost every recognized inventor didn't actually invent the thing. Edison, Ford, Marconi, Da Vinci, Gates.

Leonardo Da Vinci? A fraud? A cheat? Yeah. Imagine my disappointment to find out that sketches predating Leonardo's works have been found in the notebooks of Italian engineers. Drag! I mean, I knew Edison and Bill Gates were complete scumbags that shamelessly screwed over other, better creators, but Leonardo?... (sigh)

Next thing you'll tell me that Ronald Reagan didn't win the Cold War...

Well, hang on now, aren't patents and copyrights just a means for someone to set up an unfair monopoly? Isn't an inventor just a vessel of ideas, a conduit for past innovations from centuries of prior contributors, standing upon the shoulders of giants? Isn't a free and open information society a good thing? Aren't pirates just another name for liberators? Think Ben Franklin! Think the Open Shop policy responsible for the Industrial Revolution in England and America, and later in Germany. Think the Open Source movement responsible for the Internet. Aren't those all good things? Don't they speed up innovation?

Well, let's answer in reverse. Intellectual property theft speeds things up if you know what to steal. Take Lee DeForest, a scientific kleptomaniac who got hauled into court more than once. He managed to advance the art of electronics by - probably through sheer accident - turning a stolen diode design into a triode,but that was it. Thirty years labor and one stolen base. Is the Open Source movement, all those hippie programmers, responsible for the Internet. Some. Some. They are mostly responsible for some really shitty code that still plagues the Intertubes to this day. Fortunately, there are starched collar white shirts in the defense department who also built the Internet. On the whole, the pay-as-you-go approach produced a lot fewer bugs. Germany had no copyright laws unti the end of the 19th century, so technically it wasn't theft. England did, and had a lot of industrial espionage and lawsuits. That was their "open shop" atmosphere. Ditto America. We would have to run a counterfactual experiment to see what would happen there. Ben Franklin? He published many European works without permission, but the press back in Europe was producing limited edition luxury books that few could afford. The authors of those books hardly saw any monies, and certainly none from prohibitively expensive reprints. I'd say this was a case where the copyright law worked against the creator, so I'll give Ben a pass.

Is a free and open society a good thing? Well, of course, but why be such cheapskates, such greedy little cocksuckers? What's the problem with giving authors, inventors, illustrators, composers their due? What's wrong with royalties and license fees?

Patent laws in America have always made it easy to steal. Even when finally brought to court, people guilty of patent infringement have rarely received more than a slap on the wrist - or rather the fees laid against them have been pocket change compared to the revenues from stolen ideas. Inventions have, more or less, been more of a big headache for the inventor.

After decades of legal maneuvers, Oliver Evans assembled his family to witness the burning of every scrap of paper containing his inventive designs, claiming "he'd saved them a lifetime of heartache". Oliver Evans, inventor of the high pressure steam engine, the world's first automated assembly line, the first powered wheeled vehicle, is hardly known by anyone.

Eli Whitney never saw a dime from the cotton gin.  Philo T. Farnsworth and Edwin Howard Armstrong both screwed over through perfectly legal means by RCA and the rat bastard David Sarnoff. The computer industry could have been perhaps thirty years ahead of where it is today, had Bill Gates not ripped off the visionary Gary Kildall's operating system and subjected the world to these god-awful Microsoft programs.

Why invent at all? If inventors had a crystal ball of the legal battles ahead of them, most probably would not. But there are exceptions. There are successes. Leo Baekeland led a fairly painless life of little of no contention over his plastics. Perhaps the fact that he had a well-moneyed cocksucker defending his patent rights helped. Charles Goodyear, living in poverty most of his life, finally achieved fortune. George Eastman, Edwin Land, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, all lucked out.

But they are the exceptions.

1 comment:

  1. If life was fair, we'd all look alike...now back to work...