The abbreviation IP stands for “Intellectual Property”, and IP rights are government-granted, exclusive rights to exploit some intangible assets, such as music, art, and designs. Due to the ease by which digital material can be copied by computers and spread by means of the internet, IP rights have got quite some attention in recent years. So much, in fact, that a whole branch of lawyers has been bred to deal specifically with IP rights.
I am very much in favour of a system of IP rights. If someone creates a new and unique work, that person should be able to exploit the fruits of his efforts in a way that pleases him or her. If someone makes a successful design, and later finds someone else has copied that design and gains considerable profits from it, it is only just that the orginal creator shares in those profits or even can prohibit making the profits.
Individuals and companies have enjoyed the benefits of IP rights for quite some time. But the rise of the Internet seems to have struck fear in the hearts of many rights holders. Or rather, it seems that IP lawyers have seen it fit to strike such fear in the hearts of IP holders. Two cases:
Some time ago I had a website where on my “about” page I had a cartoon which I had copied from a book of cartoons. This cartoon was quite apt at describing me personally, and I liked it a lot. I knew that copying from a book is allowed if it is short and an adequate reference is made, so I added a caption to the cartoon, stating exactly from which book it was, and who the author was. At some point I received a so-called Cease & Desist (C&D) letter from the author’s lawyer, stating that I had illegally copied a cartoon, and that I should remove it immediately. I complied. However, I also wrote a nice email back stating that I was not going to act against the wishes of the author, but that I believed that I was actually in my rights in copying that one cartoon, and I thought that having that cartoon in that specific place would actually help the author in selling more books. Naturally, I did not receive an answer. I suspected, however, that this particular C&D letter was not sent on orders of the author, but by an over-zealous IP lawyer who had been hired to scan the whole Internet and threaten anyone who was “ripping off” the author. Frankly, I did not see how that lawyer would be worth his money by threatening me, as I certainly would not cost the author any sales.
The second case I wish to offer is a lot bigger. There is a great website about board games, called BoardGameGeek (BGG). This is a community site for and by board gamers, on which thousands upon thousands of games are reviewed, commented, discussed, and reported upon. It contains a wealth of material on every board game in existence. Now, a group of IP lawyers, on behalf of the game publisher Games Workshop (GW), has sent a C&D letter to the maintainers of BGG to remove any and all files on their games from the website. The maintainers complied, and removed hundreds of files which supported the GW games. They removed helpsheets, user-created scenarios, and rule summaries. They removed everything that the community needed to enjoy the GW games.
The big question is “What does GW hope to accomplish?” Do they strive for more profits? Well, then this is not a good action to achieve that. Profits are gained by selling games and game materials. Games are sold to gamers, who are often part of gaming communities. This holds in particular for GW games, for which many communities exist. Such communities want and need the community-created materials which are no longer available. Will the members of these communities be happy with GW’s actions? Of course not. They are outraged. There is no doubt in my mind that GW lost many sales by sending these letters.
I can think of no good, business-related reason why GW would act this way. But they seem to think they made a good move here. The only reason I can think of is that they were approached by some IP lawyers, who, on the lookout for more business, made the publishers afraid by telling them they had discovered many of their “IP rights” up for grabs on the interwebs, and that they could help GW to mitigate the damage if GW would only pay some “protection money”.
It is not hard to alienate your customers, which is what GW has done. And they will have a hard time winning them over again. The only winners here are the IP lawyers.
It is good to have IP rights. And having rights means needing some protection for them. But it also means having the ability to graciously allow the world access to them. Not arbitrarily, but judiciously. If it helps you reach your goals, why not?