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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A Lesson in Restraint


Housed in an old school building in all its white space glory, the P.S. 1 MoMA is a complete contrast to 5Pointz.

Even the entrance is dramatic. As soon as I walked past the gate, I was surrounded by concrete walls (sans graffiti). A narrow paved walkway led to the stairs, while the rest of the yard was covered in gravel. As you might have inferred from its name, the museum is housed in an old school building. The stairwells are prison-like and fenced in, many of the halls are windowless, and the classrooms seemed to have retained their original doors.

I couldn’t take pictures of the artwork of course, but the receptionist said I could take pictures of the building. I decided the $5 fee wasn’t bad for a detour, and I soon found myself, no surprise here, getting lost. To the bathroom. With a map in hand.

Back on track, I admired a green hallway. As I lifted my camera, which I’d left hanging on my neck all tourist-like out of complete laziness (I mean, assembling and disassembling lenses is such a chore), I soon heard, “Miss? No photos.”

“But, but the building…” I said.
“The ‘EXIT’ signs are considered artwork,” said that same receptionist. Traitor.

There must have been something special about them, though I didn’t know what. Like all EXIT signs, they were red, this time painted on the dangling light fixtures lining the hallway. Maybe they were in a slightly different font? A slightly different shade of red?

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center is one of the oldest and largest non-profit contemporary art institutions in the United States. An exhibition space rather than a collecting institution, P.S.1 devotes its energy and resources to displaying the most experimental art in the world. A catalyst and an advocate for new ideas, discourses, and trends in contemporary art, P.S.1 actively pursues emerging artists, new genres, and adventurous new work by recognized artists in an effort to support innovation in contemporary art. P.S.1 achieves this mission by presenting its diverse program to a broad audience in a unique and welcoming environment in which visitors can discover and explore the work of contemporary artists. P.S.1 presents over 50 exhibitions each year, including artists’ retrospectives, site-specific installations, historical surveys, arts from across the United States and the world, and a full schedule of music and performance programming.

(Source: ps1.org)

Resigned, I took to the stairwell, where the walls had peeling, gold flecks of paint. The sun shone through a solitary window, making the cramped stairwell a little less creepy. Just when I was entertaining the thought of taking a picture, I saw it: “Take pictures here and die.”

An exhibit somewhere on the second or third floor held remnants of 1969. One room featured newspapers glued to the floor, and as the barely yellowing pages left me questioning if indeed they were from 1969, I leaned in closer when I heard, “Miss…” I looked at my feet to see I’d crossed the line marking the appropriate distance I should have kept between myself and said papers.

I left the exhibit to walk the halls. Out of a large window, I saw the skyline. I shot a picture at last, suddenly wishing I’d spent the day outside instead. I wouldn’t be surprised if a sociological experiment lay in the confines of that old school building. I felt restricted, unable to do the simplest things without getting admonished to behave in a certain manner so as not to offend.

In other words, it was elementary school all over again.

Back to the future, Obey Giant styles

Still in the process of setting up my closet, er, bedroom, I recently came across this picture while searching for photos for the frames above my bed (Yes, *I hung them sans pictures because I thought it would motivate me to print photos ASAP. Mind you, I bought those frames two years ago when I moved into my first apartment. This is progress).

I’d decided to use three pictures of three different markets I photographed in my travels — New York, the Philippines and, where the above photo was taken, Barcelona. There’s nothing remarkable about this picture, I actually didn’t even post it on the blog I had back then, except for the sticker behind the blurred figure. I remember being a bit creeped out, taking the picture and moving on. What I didn’t know was it was a stencil of Andre the Giant by graffiti artist Shepard Fairey.

Why I’m bringing this up now, more than two years after this photo was taken, is simply because I love finding little nuggets like this. Without knowing it, I’d come across artwork by an artist who would blow up a little more than a year later.

Regardless of your political leanings, you most likely have seen this image, especially during the 2008 presidential election. Fairey created this stencil, which became the symbol of the Hope campaign. It has since become an icon.

In April, I was able to check out more of Fairey’s work at the ICA in Boston. Lo and behold, Andre the Giant’s face graced the top of the building. I soon noticed his stuff scattered across the city, on walls, on buildings, on lampposts.

What does it all mean, you ask?

Absolutely nothing.

As humans, we often search for meaning in what we don’t understand by finding tenuous links between things that are likely unrelated. Many who see Fairey’s work come up with their own interpretations.

The funny thing is, the sticker itself means nothing. Its whole reason for existing is to be questioned.  There is so much information out there on billboards, advertisements that we passively look at, ingest subconsciously and, without knowing it, accept as truth. Most commercials blatantly tell us what they’re selling rather than letting us discover things for ourselves (Remember when the G campaign first came out? That was an exception). With the Obey Giant campaign, Fairey aims to make us think actively about what we see and question our surroundings.

It’s pretty neat how something that didn’t mean much two years ago suddenly makes a bit more sense. I can’t say I decipher every little thing I encounter these days, but it does make me wonder about what else I’m missing.

Hm.

*Disclaimer: By “I,” I mean my boyfriend. I don’t know how to draw a straight line, much less hang a series of frames evenly.

Artists and mortals

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When I read about Stephen Wiltshire, I wanted to see his work for myself. I can barely remember telephone numbers or locations without jotting them down, let alone entire skylines. This sounded amazing.

Armed with HopStop directions to Pratt, I headed to the subway and did a time check on my phone. 2:20. I should get there around 3:30, I thought.

People usually shun NYC subways, deeming the maps a labyrinth of indecipherable lines. I wasn’t scared. I’m notoriously bad with driving directions, but my traveling exploits have seasoned my subway- and walking-map literacy. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized years of GPS and Googlemapping have also conditioned me to forgo better judgment and blindly follow what’s already been decided.

After the first train, I transferred onto the next without much thought. I didn’t even bother to read the sign.

Eyes: White number, orange circle.
Legs: I will blindly follow whatever you say.
Higher consciousness: ……….

I didn’t realize the train was headed the wrong direction until much later. On the road, this is fine. You usually get off the highway, turn around and get on the right one. On the subway, this equates to panic, confusion and, if you don’t have a map handy or if you do but don’t want to pull it out for fear of being targeted as Silly Tourist Girl, resignation, all the while getting farther and farther from where you need to go with each missed stop.

I got off some desolate stop, using my “I know where I’m going” face, and decided I’d just hop on the next train going the other way. Then, I saw them. Yellow tape across the staircase blocking where I needed to go. I contemplated hopping over them, tapes be damned, when someone nearby uttered an exasperated, “That train isn’t stopping here?!”

A girl, who had been standing in front of me staring at something, nonchalantly turned around and said, “No. You’ve got to get off at 61st and catch the train there.”

Such wisdom! I thought. She had memorized all the stops on this particular line and could predict the train schedule, even all the idiosyncrasies and changes!

It wasn’t until she walked away that I noticed what she had been staring at: Signs about construction, schedule changes and the stops to use. The girl had something more important than impeccable memory and psychic powers. She had common sense.

It took me more than the estimated hour and a half to get to Pratt. It involved another transfer, walking through what I thought was the graffiti-laced ghetto of Queens (which my roommate later informed me is actually an artist’s haven), before I finally got to Pratt around 4 p.m.

I was sweaty, flustered and determined to get the most out of my ordeal. By golly, I was going to stay there until it closed!  And then it hit me. Here was a man who could memorize skylines after a few minutes, and there I was, a mere mortal who could not follow simple directions.

I knew I belonged on the other side of the rope, marveling at the artist before me.

He took a 20-minute helicopter ride above NYC and, without
looking at notes or photographs, produced this in six days.

IMG_0364He was diagnosed with autism as a child and began speaking when his grade school teachers temporarily took away his art supplies to encourage him to ask for them.

DSC_0137When he draws, he listens to NKOTB, Backstreet Boys, Beyonce, Outkast and ’80s and ’90s music. He’s done panoramic memory drawings of London, Rome, Madrid, Dubai, Jerusalem, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

DSC_0133He kept smiling right before he finished (He finished two days early). Afterward I asked him what he was thinking about when he smiled. He said, “I was excited to finish the panorama. My last panorama forever.” His sister, Annette Wiltshire, said, “He’s always smiling. He was born a smiler.”

Making sense of the abstract

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Abstract art has always gone over my head. Never having taken an art history class (unless you count the one in Barcelona, where my Spanish professor droned on and on about something or other as he faced the wall, and we his back), I’ve always favored logical, realistic pieces. Or at least ones in which people were clearly people and mountains clearly resembled, well, mountains.

Enter Vasily Kandinsky, the Moscow-born painter of the abstract and inspiration for the design of New York’s Guggenheim. I’d gone to the museum last weekend more excited about the spiral than the works it contained (which is usually the case for me and museums), and clueless about the main exhibition. My expectations were low, considering the Bilbao Guggenheim had several abstract pieces that mustered up nothing more than a “Huh?” and a “Wha?” from me.

Headset and narration in tow, I started at the bottom (despite hearing a passerby talk about how you’re supposed to start at the top) and looked, puzzled, at his early works.

This is famous? I scoffed. It looks like a kindergartner’s handiwork!

But as I progressed to his later works the narration of his life took over, and things actually started making sense. Kandinsky started painting at 30 after he’d studied law and economics.  He believed that paintings should be as abstract as music, that composition was more important than the actual subject, and that colors were tied to emotional responses. Despite the seemingly haphazard quality of his work, his paintings were meticulously planned.

As he matured, so did his work, with increasing use of geometric shapes and spiritual themes. His work was influenced by the artists he encountered as well as life’s tragedies. When his son died, his paintings — known for color — noticeably grew darker, with more use of black. When the Nazis assumed power, he used more brown. In Paris, his later years, his colors were light and airy. His last major work paralleled a painting of his from the Nazi years, with white space symbolizing hope.

I ascended the spiral, intrigued by his life as an artist. He was influenced by where he lived, the artists in his community and the political conflicts around him. I’ve often wondered where to draw the line when displaying your personal life for artistic purposes. I like that Kandinsky incorporated his personal life into his work, communicated his message but still left things up for interpretation.

Neat stuff indeed.

Check out the Kandinsky exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York, on display until January.

I kept in mind that Kandinsky started painting at 30, pretty late in life and after he’d studied law and economics.