Sunday, 30 March 2008

Edison: The consumate IP thief

There's a lot of chatter on the blogs over IP rights recently. From the SL Bloggers forum concerning the new dos and don'ts with SL branding, to Chez Nabob's anti-IP-theft campaign, ironically ripped off inspired by PETA's anti-fur campaign.

However the big news for the day is that consummate stealer of ideas and self promoting patent mogul, Thomas Edison, has been shown to be the non-inventor of yet another item.

Few seem to be aware that Edison's incandescent lightbulb was a pretty close copy of Joseph Swan's bulb, patented in the UK a year before Edison received his US patent. His disdain for Georges Méliès copyright on Le voyage dans la Lune was apparent when he had hundreds of copies made of the film and kept all the royalties for himself, leading to Méliès eventual bankruptcy.

But thanks to Dr. Fabre's mention in The Heliograph, it seems that Edison's claims to be the first to record the human voice have been shot down as well. ABC Technology reports that French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville made a recording of a young woman singing 'Au clair de la lune' some 17 years before Edison's recording of Mary Had a Little Lamb.

Edison obviously liked nicking things from the French.


Burton Newall, FRCSE said...

Actually, Sir Edward, Edison's claim to auditory fame is that his machine was the first to reproduce speech. Leon's invention was intended only to record and then to analyse human speech, thereby facilitating some sort of automated transcription (a goal it failed admirably at).

Leon's accomplishment is surely worthy to be hailed as a first and a monumental achievement, and Edison was surely weak in the ethics department, but in this case I don't think Edison's accomplishment is diminished. They are apples and oranges.

Dr. Rafael Fabre said...

Dear Mr. Newall,

I would counter that Edison, though he may have been a competent technological developer, was not as innovative in researching the technologies he is best known for - only making them somewhat commerically viable, and then making a profit via clever marketing.

1) The aformentioned sound reproduction equpment. He did not develop it, simply made it commerically viable (as previously stated).

2) The incandescent lamp, first developed in 1860 by Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, only to be tweaked by Edison for commerical profit. However, he lost in court (in both the UK & the US) for patent infringement, preventing him from making a profit on the incandescent bulb.

3) His Direct Current power system (his development), designed to power New York City, was such a failure that even after a clever marketing plan (the infamous "AC electric chair - a meger ploy to associate AC with "danger", vice his "safer" AC system), his system fell out of use, and not only the populace of the United States, but worldwide, chose the benefits of Tesla's AC system.

I would concur with you that he was weak in the ethics department, but in my eyes, he was no more that a mildly successful tinkerer, with excellent marketing skills and said lack of morality.

Dr. Rafael Fabre

Dr. Rafael Fabre said...

PS: A bit more on point three... did mean "DC" vice "AC" current (a typo), and he was also notorious for attempting to demonstrate the "dangers" of AC current on innocent animals, including cats, dogs, and a poor elephant named Topsy.
As the "", stated, since he did develop the electric chair, he could reasonably be called the "Father of Capital Punishment" for the 20th century!
He was EVIL I say - Evil, Evil, Evil!
/me slams his fist on the table!

A. Tinlegs, Gnome said...

You've stumbled on to one of my interests Sir Edward.I intend to write an article on these very subjects myself, when my typist finds the time.

To the best of my knowledge Edison himself only personally invented two items. A telegraph repeater and the double sink. The majority of the patents that bear his name were developed by Edison Laboratories.The old boy contrived to have the items developed by his company patented in his name. I believe to do so today in the US would lead to a federal investigation.

As far as the incandescent light bulb is concerned what Edison Labs actually invented was an improved version of the bulb that was easier and cheaper to mass produce.Of course Edison's PR edited that quite a bit, hence the popular misconception that he invented it.

On the subject of alternating current and his disgraceful treatment of young Tesla: Edison was what I have found to be typical of self educated individuals (I include myself in this group) in that he learned a great deal about subjects that interested him, but not always about the things he needed to learn. In short he didn't have the background to understand Tesla's explanation of AC current and what little he did understand contradicted what he thought he knew.

Also in keeping with his self educated status and ego, Edison was a control freak. Thus when Tesla continued to develop his idea on his own time and Edison got wind of that fact, Edison promptly fired Tesla. Tesla of course took his idea to Edison's arch rival, Westinghouse. The rest as they say is history. (This is the Amplebeak highly abridged version.)

I do have to play devils advocate on one thing. De Martinville's phonoautograph was not an audio recording device for playback as was Edison's phonograph. The phonoautograph was intended solely for the purpose of visualizing an audio signal. It is only because of the advent of 21st century computer technology that the surviving phonoautographs may be rendered into audible sound. And of the recordings so recreated only one is readily recognizable as recorded sound, to my ear at any rate.So like it or not Edison still gets credit for the first purpose built audio playback device.

Edison was however familiar with the phonoautograph and made several phonoautograms in the course of his own acoustic research, one of which was restored by the researchers who recreated De Martiville's work.

On the subject of of IP; several companies around the globe produced devices based on the principles of the phonograph without paying Edison one red cent in royalties. In the end the Edison Phonograph Company became an also-ran in the market it helped create. Format wars did not begin with Betamax vs. VHS :-)

If anyone should wish to listen to the reconstructed phonautograms of De Martinville & Edsion you may download MP3's here

Chez Nabob said...

Not to hijack your post, which I realize is really about Edison, I think your insinuation that the IP rights campaign is a rip-off of PETA's anti-fur effort is off the mark. There is something called fair use in copyright law.

The campaign we released in SL is a parody of the famous PETA ads which use naked celebrities to promote their cause. I thought it would be amusing to do something similar using the naked AVs of a few SLebrities, and so launched the IP rights campaign.

I did consider that some would see this as hypocritical, a campaign trying to create awareness of intellectual property theft using a similar concept to a RL ad campaign. However I think if you actually look at PETA's ads, they're really nothing new or truly unique about them.

Advertisers have long used naked/near naked images to sell their product/service/cause. I'm sure you've heard the adage "sex sells." The design of the ads is probably the closest element to the RL campaign, but even that debatable/subjective and again there is certainly nothing particularly unique about the execution.

As has been pointed out on at least one copyright-focused blog regarding the IP rights campaign, many who claim strong rights often ignore the fact that copyright law does allow for unauthorized use (fair use), and claim infringement at the drop of a hat.

I did not want that to be the case with this campaign. We wanted to do something lighthearted and fun and didn't want people to feel we were beating them over the head with the message.

Are we riding PETA's coat tails in terms of recognition? Yes, and I have acknowledged that from the beginning, but without recognition in the mind of the person seeing the ads, you don't have parody. Recognition between the two campaigns is one of the elements of parody, at least from where I sit.

If anyone involved in the effort was going to receive a direct financial benefit, if PETA's message would have been harmed or their cause had been cast in a negative light and their organization's finances impacted in a negative way, or if their concept (using naked people to push their cause) had been truly unique, I absolutely would not have produced the campaign.

If you feel otherwise and think we have "ripped-off" their RL effort, well, I guess I don't see it that way.

Edward Pearse, Earl of Primbroke said...

Actually Chez I think it's you who've missed the point. You love throwing around the word "parody" but get offended by the term "ripping off". Parody is (under US copyright law) perfectly allowable, which I'm pretty certain is the reason you're using the word. However the parody it's referring to is to make fun of something. You're not making fun of the PETA, you freely admit that you've taken their idea and adapted it to your own purpose. Since you didn't ask them if they'd mind, from where *I* sit it called "ripping off" another person's idea.

Now while it's quite possible that it falls into the boundary of Fair Use, and I don't think PETA is going to bother to waste the funds testing it in court, I wasn't talking about the LEGALITIES of what you're doing.

Is your ad campaign legal? Quite probably. Is it ETHICAL to be complaining about IP theft by using another person's ideas? Smacks of double standards to me.

Chez Nabob said...

Ok, let's not get off on the wrong foot here. My intention by posting a comment was simply to try to explain to you my position and my thinking on the campaign. Certainly you are entitled to your opinion, and that's fine. I'm just saying I don't agree.

Let me explain my perspective a bit further and if we still don't see eye to eye at the end, well then we'll just have to agree to disagree. Certainly there's nothing wrong with a little healthy debate on the issue.

First, let me start by defining parody. This definition comes from Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary:

Parody- A writing in which the language or sentiment of an author is mimicked; especially, a kind of literary pleasantry, in which what is written on one subject is altered, and applied to another by way of burlesque.

Now, of course there are many nuances of definitions and yes, I agree that the word can mean to mock/make fun of something, but as we see from the definition above, it doesn't HAVE to poke fun at the subject of the parody.

When I was thinking of ways we might present the campaign the idea of using "famous" avatars in SL struck me as amusing, ironic and somehow wonderfully odd. Mimicking RL ads that use the concept of "celebrity" to sell their product, only doing it in this alternate universe (SL) where celebrity is truly manufactured just seemed like an interesting idea. If I could raw the parallel between the two worlds with the ads as the tie that binds them together might yield an amusing similarity people could identify with.

The question was, what could be done to help people identify the concept from something recognizable in RL and then have it register in their minds in SL?

I landed on the PETA ads because they used celebrities, and of course there was the added "bonus" of I said in my comment above, sex sells, and we wanted something that would help deliver the message in a memorable way. Certainly being provocative would help our cause.

I also drew inspiration from other campaigns, one being the "Got Milk?" ads. This was primarily due to the fact that again, they use RL celebrities to further their cause (though there were also other aspects of the campaign that appealed to me as well), but using celebrities and using nudity/sex to "move the merchandise" is nothing new and therefore not unique. As an aside, if the "Got Milk?" campaign used naked celebrities as well, would you consider that unethical?

My point basically is that copyright law is incredibly broad and in many instances incredibly vague, purposefully so. But there are also many instance where it is not.

In SL the issue of content theft is one of someone taking the creation of someone else...directly ripping it and making an EXACT duplicate...and selling that for a purpose of nothing more than lining their pockets with the profits (and it's PURE profit as it took them ZERO effort to make an exact copy. They invested no time in the creation of the product).

If I felt that I was taking the EXACT unique concept of PETA with no changes or modifications and no original thought of my own and was directly benefiting financially, and harming them or their message/business, then I would have absolutely not moved ahead with this idea.

So when the issue is someone taking the exact creation, selling it for profit (or distributing it freely as in the case of P2P music sharing) and hurting the original creator's business in that process, I don't think there's much question about whether or not copyright has been violated.

The whole point of the IP rights campaign is to create awareness. I think we would be remiss if we looked to enforce only one part of the law (creator intellectual property rights) and not address the other (fair use) even if only giving it an admittedly subtle nod.

Intellectual property rights are something I do believe in with a passion as it does affect my RL job/income, but I also recognize the fact that there are instances where fair use comes into play and that means that people are allowed to take a concept of something I've done, and project their own ideas onto it. As long as I am not impacted in a negative manner as a result of that...well, no harm, no foul.

As to the matter of ethics I would go back to the criteria I used to determine whether or not to launch the campaign in the first place. As I said, if PETA had been harmed in any way, if I felt I was taking a unique concept of theirs (again naked/near naked celebrities are not unique) and duplicating it exactly with no original thought of my own, if I would be damaging the value of their intellectual property, or if I stood to make money as a direct result of this campaign, I would not have gone through with it. In my mind, an unethical person would not have considered those things at all.

I think the ads have a kind of tongue-in-cheek-quality to them (naked avatars? come on!). Clearly there are similarities, but as mentioned above, there have to be parallels so people make the connection between the two campaigns. That is part of what makes something a parody. There must be a certain level of recognition on the part of the viewer, and if we go back to the definition of parody, I think this campaign fits nicely into that arena.

My apologies for the length of this post. If you're still with me, I'm sorry I can't give you the time you spent reading this back...heh. Hopefully this gives you a little more insight into my thinking. If you still don't agree, that's fine. I just felt perhaps you thought I was attacking your blog post in my previous comment and wanted to set the record straight. Not my intention at all.

Merlot said...

I probably should NOT jump into the fray here, but Mr Hassanov told me to check out your blog, and not only are you talking about Edison (teh Evil, but really not doing anything different than most "respectable" businesses today) but you have *ALSO* mentioned that add campaign-- which, in all honesty, went right up my nose for the precise reason you have mentioned.

Calling it a parody is incorrect-- parody is a convention used to mock and whenever I see those posters around, vendors have put them up in earnest because they do not want their business taken away.
Are you making fun of Peta? Perhaps. Of commerce in second life? Surely not. People take that campaign seriously.

Whether or not it is "fair use" -- I won't bother to debate, that doesn't get anyone anywhere.

I think that the problem here is the fundamental lack of the grasp of the irony. Which, since we are bandying about definitions, is described as "a subtly humorous perception of inconsistency, in which an apparently straightforward statement or event is undermined by its context so as to give it a very different significance."


Merlot said...

Oh, and if you have never seen the work of the artist "shardcore" he has some interesting "mad scientist" paintings.
And then this one of Edison and Topsy:

Chez Nabob said...


Oh no, I understand the irony you're referring to, and I understand why you see it that way.

As I said in my comment to Edward, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree as I'm not sure how I can explain why I see it differently any more clearly than I have already.

You are certainly entitled to your own opinion on the matter. Do I wish you felt differently? Of course I do, but I also realize everyone isn't going to see eye to eye on every single issue.

At any rate I do appreciate the thoughts you and William have expressed, and I'd like to say thanks for at least listening to my position on the issue as well.

Chez Nabob said...

Sorry...not William (no idea where that came from). I meant Edward.

Emilly Orr said...

*quietly tiptoes in*

And, not to rake this up any further, but--Miss Merlot, keep in mind that "parody" is a common (but not always understandable, see this page for more information on parody and fair use) U.S. convention for getting around tricky ethical bits.

*quietly tiptoes off*