The Patent & The Instagram

Credit: Geeks Are Sexy

Don’t think you are a photographer just because you use Instagram.

It’s one of those things people say to make things that aren’t quite so clear, well, clear. As if imposing boundaries on the boundless adds certainty. As if the world were black and white. As if everything needs its own place, its cubby, its designated compartment. This way, the world makes sense.

Which does help explain some of life’s great mysteries. But not completely.

Take intellectual property, for example. When I tell people I write about intellectual property law, their eyes glaze over, they politely nod and smile, and say, “Cool!” Cool. Cool said in the way I’d say cool if someone told me their hair stayed curly much longer today than yesterday, all thanks to this new hairspray they’re trying because it’s personally endorsed by The Hair Queen of Hairdonia.

Cool.

But it’s OK. I would have said something similar just a year or two ago. I mean, I never once thought, “Gosh, when I grow up I want to become a journalist and write about patents and copyrights! Yayayayaya!” After all, intellectual property on its surface is this weird, enigmatic thing. It’s intimidating and scary. It’s amorphous and complex.

We ordinary humans take intellectual property and say: I am putting you in my amorphous and complex cabinet, only to be opened on desperate occasions, like that time I ran out of sugar so I finally opened that hard-to-reach cabinet over the fridge to check if it happened to have sugar because risking food poisoning made more sense than putting on five layers to go outside.

The dictionary doesn’t help either. Merriam-Webster takes intellectual property and says: It is a “property (as an idea, invention or process) that derives from the work of the mind or intellect; also: an application, right or registration relating to this.”

So, let me get this straight. Intellectual property is property of the intellectual kind? Obviously, Merriam and Webster stayed home from school the day they went over how you’re not supposed to use the words you’re defining when you’re defining them.

But all is not lost. Let’s break it down, Will Smith styles.

This is the story all about how
My understanding of intellectual property got flip- turned upside down

OK, I can’t explain IP in rap.

Let’s break it down. Karen styles.

Let’s start with the patent, because it’s a major part of IP and it’s pretty damn old. (How old? Yo patent’s so old, it was filed before Abe Lincoln’s patent.)

I could talk at length (Actually, no I can’t. Don’t make me) about Article One, Section 8, of the US Constitution:

The Congress shall have power…To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;

With this, Congress said: Let there be the patent system!

People like to create almost as much as people like to freeload. The patent protects the innovators from the moochers.

It also gives people an incentive to create stuff by granting them the exclusive use of their inventions for a limited time. In the US, it’s 20 years. So, for those 20 years, no one can use someone else’s patented invention, unauthorized, and profit from it. After the patent expires, the findings of that invention enter public domain, and anyone can use them to innovate. Basically, it’s one generation’s gift to the next.

Simple enough, right? This makes intellectual property less amorphous. There are now cubbies.

Intellectual property is the invention. The patent protects it. Anyone who profits from the invention without permission is infringing the patent. The very smartphone you’re reading this on is likely covered by thousands of them.

So, let’s say someone takes an iPhone, replicates it and passes it off as a new product. That’s infringement. But let’s say someone sells a smartphone covered by its own set of patents that cover its own set of features similar to a set of features also covered by an entirely different set of patents for the iPhone.

What is that?

Other than the subject of ongoing major litigation, it’s also the gray area. And the grays are the really interesting part. The grays defy a simple definition. Because one person’s definition of what constitutes infringement may not mesh with your definition of what constitutes infringement. These various, often conflicting definitions of infringement are what’s plaguing Googlebooks, SOPA/PIPA and, many would argue, the progress of science and the arts.

So, while definitions help us understand things better, they don’t cover everything. Some things don’t belong in neat little cubbies. Maybe they belong in more than one.

Even worse than an incomplete definition is a misguided one, like when people define an enigmatic concept by using the wrong words (at least Merriam and Webster used the right ones). This is what’s happening with the Instagram. It’s an attempt to define a photographer by the tool she uses. Which is fine, if you’re part of that “REAL photographers use silver on a copper plate with their bare hands, just like Daguerre did in 1839!” set.

But my definition of what makes a photographer is not their definition of what makes a photographer. Because in my definition, a photographer isn’t defined by the camera she uses but by how she uses it.

***

In the beginning, there was the camera. Scientists, mathematicians and astronomers used it for scientific, mathematical, astronomyish purposes.

The artists, as artists tend to do, took that contraption and made things look cool. And I’m not talking Hair Queen of Hairdonia cool; I’m talking Gladwell wrote a bunch of interesting books connecting seemingly unrelated concepts, got them illustrated and repackaged into a boxed (My birthday’s coming up!) set cool.

But these things didn’t look cool because of the camera. Had the camera not been invented, I’m sure these artists would have come up with some other cool ways to express themselves. Like, I don’t know, paint or sing or string together household objects emulating sea creatures and hang them from the ceiling. Or something.

Luckily, Ansel Adams didn’t have to resort to bioluminescent installations (Notably, he was a musician in his youth. A world sans camera might have led him to pursue music instead), because the commercially made camera made it possible for more people to do with it whatever they wanted to do. Just like smaller film cameras did, the lower priced ones did, the SLR, the DSLR, the point and shoot, and the camera phones did (and do).

What hasn’t changed is what makes a good picture.

It’s easy to say that a photographer is someone who knows how to use a DSLR or develop his own film, because they come with tangible measurements. The photographer, this suggests, knows how to let in a little more light, speed up the shutter speed and adjust this or that to produce the desired result. There’s a bit of math, craft, science, mechanics involved.

But a great part of creativity, and that’s what I’m really talking about here, is intuitive. There’s curiosity, the feeling, the story, the eye, the connection to the reader, the viewer, the listener.

And communicating that doesn’t require supercalifragilistic lenses. I’ve seen people take terrible pictures with awesome cameras.

People get enamored with the intricacies of things, as if the more buttons and complications something has, the more impressive their abilities. I liken it to a writer adding fluff to a sentence, as if the longer it is and the bigger the words, the better delivered the message.

But see, all that is nothing without the idea. Once you reach a certain level of competence, what sets you apart is the story you tell. A writer with perfect grammar, a MacBook and nothing to say will always be trumped by the slightly flawed writer with a notepad and insight. A photographer with a great camera but no perspective produces a nice picture that says nothing.

In this ever evolving world, where a picture, a song, a movie can be produced and shared in ways only previously imagined, the challenge is in producing a quality product when there are fewer places to hide.

Of increasing importance is the intangible, the thing that’s hard to define. It’s what will always set a work of art apart from a work of technical brilliance.

This is part of a series of posts about PROBAATD, an overly broad project in which the only guidelines are that it involves a book, a list, a blog. This particular entry came from spurts of random thoughts brought on by the book of the moment, “Steve Jobs.”

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4 thoughts on “The Patent & The Instagram

  1. Damn Karen where do you find the time to write such epic posts?! I wanna be just like you, or I wanna have your epic writing skills at least :o) I was reading this book about IP last year and this post reminded me so much of it; if I could remember the title and author, I’d share but I obviously forgot! Lol!

    • Haha! Thanks for that, Toni. Made me smile.

      I pretty much keep a notebook with me at all times and jot down all my random thoughts when they strike (very inconvenient on a moving train, but what can you do?). Then I write a draft of jumbled thoughts by computer (in this case, last Friday) and tweak it until it’s ready. This one took a few hours of revision over two days, but it sat in draft form for nearly a week before I revisited it. Just have to make a point to edit it when you have the time.

      Do tell me when you remember that book. Very curious.

      (Loving your travel pictures on Instagram, btw.)

  2. Pingback: The days so far « explore. dream. discover.

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