Intellectual Property In The Digital Age: Battle Rages On Many Fronts

What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine too! That’s pretty much what the world at large, and now what even employers seem to believe when it comes to creative works in the digital realm.

Since illegal music downloads torpedoed the music industry, and bootleg copies of movies, games, books, and other creative works are being sold on unauthorized “rogue” websites such as The Pirate Bay; music and movie industry lobbyists have been hounding Congress to pass laws to protect them.

In theory; that’s actually a really good idea, but in practice, the laws as proposed are troublesome for a number of reasons, and have stirred up an enormous amount of controversy.

As a musician and writer, I’d hate to think somebody was ripping me off and making a profit on something I worked hard to create. But then again; that’s exactly what’s happened to thousands of musicians over the years, as they saw the fruits of their labor usurped by record companies who cheated them out of royalties with shifty deals and outright lies.

Then the worm turned, and Record Companies discovered the hard way that the provision in US copyright law that allows computer users to burn backup data discs opened the Pandora’s box of illegal file sharing that shriveled music industry profits.

The record industry’s inability to adapt to changing technology by clinging to a physical CD-based based business model while the rest of the world went digital also added fuel to the fire. Add missteps including lawsuits against their own customers for copyright infringement, and Sony’s infamous digital rights management software which contained a computer rootkit; and you have a recipe for disaster.

When the film industry realized that their financial lives were on the line as well; they joined in the general panic that resulted in the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill that is under consideration in the House of Representatives, and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) proposal in the Senate.

These proposals would allow the government to force internet service providers to block access to sites–often outside of the US–that offer pirated works. Opponents say it will result in a totalitarian regime-like blackout of sites, and that if the government gets that kind of power; it will forever change the internet as we know it in a very bad way.

A firestorm of protest has erupted, and Congress has been inundated by calls from constituents who object to the bills in their current form.

One of the biggest criticisms of the bills as proposed, is that websites can be blocked without any kind court hearing, even if there is even just an allegation that they’re providing access to copyrighted material. This lack of due process has resulted in claims the bills are unconstitutional, and could actually “break the internet”.

The fight over who has control over and access to digital works is also being fought on other  fronts.

A company in California is suing a former employee over a Twitter account they say they paid him to create when he worked for them. The employee says since he tweeted both work and personal information, and since he changed the name (Twitter handle) on the account since he quit working for that company; he should be able to keep using the account.

At issue is whether his account was a “work for hire” that his former employer still owns, or whether the employee who actually opened it, has ownership rights.

This is another digital can of worms that everyone who uses social media for both work and personal use should approach with caution, and it is very much like the issue of who owns the data on the mobile phone you may be using for both work and personal business.

Most employees don’t realize that when they agree to get their work email on their own personal mobile phones; they are agreeing that the company can remotely wipe all data from those phones once they leave the company. Oh yeah. It can and does happen. You walk out the door; and poof–all  your data is gone–email, texts, address book–the works.

I’d suggest backing up your phone’s personal data, and keeping it in a safe place away from work where you can access it when/if your employer deletes it from your phone. But, if you have signed an agreement that allows your employer to have access and control over the data on your personal phone; copying the data could  land you in legal hot water for possessing proprietary information.

However, some companies, such as Harrah’s Entertainment, are using technology that allows them to both separate and securely encrypt their corporate data on their employee’s mobile phones. If more companies used this type of technology; employees wouldn’t have to lose important personal data such as address book contacts, if employers remote-wipe company data off their phones.

And, when it comes to Twitter of Facebook accounts you’ve opened up for work; best bet at least until this lawsuit is settled (and who knows how long that will take), is to assume it’s a work thing, and only make job-related posts.  Even though some employers are eagerly embracing social media as a way to connect with customers in a more personal way; others are concerned about how much time employees are wasting by using social media on the job.

In a world where the lines are often blurred between your work life and your personal life; it’s a good idea to recognize that even if your employer doesn’t draw the lines clearly for you; it’s in your best interest to draw them yourself.

If you want to Tweet about last night’s bar-hopping adventures or today’s shopping spree–do it on your own site, and on your own time. You may feel like you’re part of one big happy family at work, and that you’ll always be a part of the clan; but realistically speaking, you won’t.

So keep your work and personal social media activities separate. You have to protect yourself,  because you can’t count on either your employers or the courts to do it for you.


One thought on “Intellectual Property In The Digital Age: Battle Rages On Many Fronts

  1. While the copyright laws that allow backups had some impact, it was the record companies’ resistance to change that turned the piracy into a thriving business. Their “protection” of an outdated business model that provided them with even more ways of ripping off the artists (through marketing costs, burning and distribution costs for digital “albums” that had several decent songs and a bunch of b or c sides as filler) as opposed to providing the digital download of a single song (the iTunes model) couldn’t be sustained without a legal overreach.

    SOPA and PIPA do more than just block a site- the ISP must surrender the domain name to the Feds if a claim is made about pirated material, none of that pesky “proof” necessary…..

    Are you sure that you wanted to use the “Pandora” reference when talking about pirated material? If you were a Hollywood media company, that alone would be enough of that “proof”!

    Are you sure that you want to encourage people to “steal” from their employers? By encouraging them to back up company-owned information from their phones, well…….;<)

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