How the patent office almost shut down Hollywood
New book 'The Master Switch' examines the role of the patent office and the history of film – including how Thomas Edison tried to have a movie monopoly.
(Page 4 of 4)
As Wu notes (ch. 4, pp. 67-68 of the text version):Skip to next paragraph
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With the rise of insurgent producers allied with Paramount, the industrial warfare reached a new level of intensity. To distribute films illicitly was one thing; but to produce them was to attack the very heart of the Trust’s legal monopoly. Merely to operate a camera without a license was to violate patents owned by the Trust. Beginning in 1910, the Trust commenced a scorched-earth legal campaign meant to make an example of Laemmle. Over three years, their lawyers would sue him 289 times. Laemmle’s biographer describes the Trust’s strategy thus: “let them flock in from all quarters, let the federal courts and the state courts buzz with them. Scour the country for infringements, set spies on every independent camera, projecting machine, reel of film, that could be found. Let actions breed and multiply …”
Rarely has an essential tension between free expression and intellectual property been laid so bare, made so explicit, as it was in the Trust’s patent suits. The Trust, using its economic power and the patent laws, was able to harness the power of the state in the attempt to destroy its budding competition and their new type of films, leaving them only one choice. Now and again, in the course of the Cycle, a little lawbreaking will prove a useful thing.
I haven’t finished Wu’s book yet but get the sense from the parts I’ve read he hasn’t given the IP issue much radical or principled thought, nor does he (as far as I can tell) have any sort of epxlicitly anti-IP or IP abolitionist (or even IP reform) views–but he views the effects of IP with open eyes and quite clearly sees its anti-competitive and censoring effects–how it is used to enlist the state to hurt your competition.
His discussion in chapter 17 of how copyright has also distorted the film industry is also worth reading. That chapter contains a fascinating discussion of changes in the movie industry in recent decades–how the film industry now relies on viewing the film as “a property”–based on copyright protection of “characters” and so on–and thus there are nowadays so many sequels and remakes. So for example, of the most expensive films of the 2000s, almost all were remakes or sequels, anchored to some underlying “intellectual property”–e.g, the Harry Potter or Batman “characters”. The chapter’s conclusion implies that copyright is at least partly to blame for modern movie mediocrity: “Mediocrity safely begets mediocrity; behold the true miracle of the modern entertainment industry.”
Update: See Tim Lee’s guest post on The Technology Libertarian Front, How Should Libertarians Think about The Master Switch?
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