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Whither intellectual property?

James Rogan, the new patent and trademark chief, is not inclined to protect consumers in this important area. 01/12/10 ReleVents hed: Whither intellectual property? dek: James Rogan, the new patent and trademark chief, is not inclined to protect consumers in this important area. by James Mathewson

Most current debates in the tech sector center on intellectual property (IP): How do we rewrite existing analog laws for the digital world? There are several high-profile examples. At what point is it legitimate to wield a patent for software or business practices? How do recording companies protect themselves from piracy while honoring constitutional fair-use provisions? Even the very definition of piracy in a number of arenas is in a state of flux.

Perhaps the most prominent place for these debates to be settled is in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), which issues patents and protects copyrights in a way that is supposed to hold up in court. The office came under intense scrutiny in the Clinton administration for being tough on consumers while playing nice to business. The office supported the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which is a full-frontal assault to fair use in digital recordings. And it granted patents for the most vague and general business practices, which enabled companies like Walker Digital to become overnight monopolies.

I’m sorry to say that James Rogan–the Bush Administration’s appointee to head the PTO–will not change the office’s stance on these issues. A story on our site last week underscores Rogan’s strong background, which should enable him to be the most competent person in that position in several years. He has served on every major committee related to IP issues in the House, and he has cosponsored several bills related to IP in the tech sector.

But my own research shows that his positions on patent and trademark issues as a member of the House of Representatives suggest that it will be business as usual at the PTO for some time to come. First, his campaign contributors included Sony, Time Warner, Warner Brothers, Disney, Universal Studios, and the Motion Picture Association of America, which all have strong interests in maintaining the DMCA. In fact, it was his support of the law that garnered him the contributions. Second, he repeatedly opposed patent reform legislation that would have required more specifics in business methods patents than simply “name your price,” or “one-click ordering.”

I’m hopeful that as the overseer of this vital office, Rogan will use the day-to-day experience he gets to change his opinions on these matters. There is an old saying in business circles: “What’s good for consumers is good for business.” Well, vague business methods patents are bad for consumers, limiting their choices significantly. And fair use is good for consumers, increasing their ability to share information. Though he may think he’s protecting business interests with his positions on IP, by stomping on consumer’s rights to choose and share, he is ultimately stamping out business opportunities.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com

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