Copywrong: Unfortunate Claims of Intellectual Property

A number of stories this week discussed what I consider to be problems with or misuse of intellectual property, either by claiming copyright, patents, or other property rights.

Exhibit A: "Twenty Percent of Human Genome is Patented, ACLU Battle to Determine Legality"
U.S. patent law says you can't patent "natural phenomena," so how are parts of the human genome patented? Lawyers argued that if you take DNA out of the cell and modify it (a loosely-defined process, apparently), the genes are no longer considered natural. The biotech company Myriad Genome has patented two breast cancer genes using such methods and developed tests to detect the genes. They claim they would not have been able to finance their research without the patents. Sounds okay so far, right? Here's the problem: because of the patents, Myriad has been able to block other companies from developing similar tests, and universities and other research labs can't study the genes. The ACLU and the AMA aren't happy, and I can't imagine all those millions of people who donate money for breast cancer research want their dollars wasted because a patent is preventing research from being done.

(Update 3/29/2010: A New York federal court ruled that Myriad's patent claims on these genes are invalid.)

Exhibit B: "One Last Treat from Conan's Dirty Dog, Triumph"

While I don't mean to place the importance of a dog puppet alongside breast cancer research, this article claims that Triumph the Insult Comic Dog won't be following Conan O'Brien home from NBC. Due to intellectual property claims, Triumph doesn't belong to Conan, or even his creator/puppeteer Robert Smigel; he belongs to NBC. Will NBC do anything with Triumph in the future? I doubt it. They just don't want to see Triumph on another network making fans happy. And if anybody has figured out how to keep fans from being happy lately, it's NBC.

Exhibit C: "NEA - Who Owns Your Work? Probably Not You."
Many of the best teachers live by Picasso's words: "Good artists copy. Great artists steal." Increasingly, teachers are helping teachers by blogging, tweeting, and posting lesson plans online for free or profit. Unfortunately, according to the Copyright Act of 1976, teacher-created classroom materials are considered "works for hire," and their ownership belongs to the school district. If schools try to enforce this, there is a very real fear that teachers will respond by creating less content for their classrooms. The solution? Have your local teachers association negotiate with the school district to include teacher copyright protections into teacher contracts or collective bargaining agreements.

Exhibit D: "Critical Commons vs. Hitler: Resource for Free/Open Media and Fair Use"
Another participant in the "Downfall/Hitler in the Bunker" meme, Critical Commons uses the format to demonstrate the growing pains of "multimedia scholarship." Life would be easier for the publishing houses if academicians restricted themselves to journals and books, but current digital tools are pushing us all beyond publishing on paper only. As the academic community becomes more accepting of the "digital humanities," universities and publishers are going to have to adjust or risk their current institutional status. If scholars aren't allowed to thrive in a "remix" culture, their work will struggle to find relevancy among an increasingly media-savvy audience.