I find intellectual property a rather offensive term. Maybe because it always sounds a tiny bit boastful, but perhaps also because I’d prefer not to have to think of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck as intellectuals! Of course under copyright, the IP law we principally deal with, it’s not the ideas that are protected, just the tangible expression of the ideas, the form of words in which they are expressed. Apparently I’m not alone in this unease about the term: the Wikipedia article outlines the arguments. Intellectual property is protected by three main legal maneuvers — copyright, patents and trademarks, though there are other less obvious methods including trade secrets law, industrial design rights, and trade dress.

The Scholarly Kitchen brings us a thoughtful review by Karin Wulf of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction. VSIs live in bookshops in their own spinners, replenished on an ongoing basis. However the spinner in the New York store where I eventually got hold of the book a couple of weeks ago doesn’t seem to be being replenished by anyone. I went into one branch or other of Book Culture’s three outlets over a period of four months or so, only to be told thrice that the book was out of stock at the publisher. (Maybe they just said “out of stock”, and cynic that I am, I assumed this meant a screw up at the publisher. I knew that the books in this series are printed in England, so delays might be possible.) On my fourth visit the indiscrete assistant told me they’d actually never received their first order into the store, and that if I wanted to order it I could have it in a day or two as the books had been lying in their warehouse since March. I did, and 24 hours later, there it was. And Book Culture is one of New York’s more successful book chains! Of course this isn’t an expensive book, but what bookstore can afford to ignore a well-reviewed $11.95 book, one that is getting customer enquiries, and especially one where the spinner merchandising format is intended to make customers pick up more than the single volume they’d come looking for?

Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions is a successful series of brief authoritative introductions to a wide variety of (serious) topics. The VSI site suggests there are 533 of them, while the OUP site listed in the book yields  a count of 577. The book itself claims 508. Either way it’s a lot, and the number is growing rapidly. The series is clearly modeled on the Que sais-je series published by les presses universitaires de France. To me, it’s an obvious idea for a university press with good trade distribution. I floated the idea of just such a Que sais-je knockoff series when I was a junior editor in Cambridge 45 or so years ago — I clearly didn’t pursue it with sufficient energy! More fool me.

Professor Vaidhyanathan emphasizes that it was the development of search engines and the internet which turned the rather quiet world of intellectual property protection into the frenzied money business it is now. Suddenly it looked like everything was about to leak away, and suddenly we all realized how valuable it all might be. Copyright was quickly transformed from individual right into corporate asset. He uses the concept of paracopyright to describe the erosion of our rights under copyright. Of course we all tend now to copy and paste with gay abandon, working on the assumption that if someone put it up without any protective notice they must be willing to see it reused. It’s like a Creative Commons license without any acknowledgment thereof — at least I hope so!

The author writes in an easy style including lots of anecdotes. He reveals that the story of the loss of copyright in the song “Happy Birthday to You” has a kicker, in that Warner/Chappell were adjudged by a US court in 2015 never to have held copyright at all in the song on which they’d been cleaning up permissions fees for decades. They have already settled for $14 million to people wrongly charged for using the song.

We need to remember that IP laws tend to vary from nation to nation. Professor Vaidhyanathan tells us how Angelica Huston was able to prevent the colorization of her father’s film The Asphalt Jungle — but in France only, not USA. Under US copyright law John Huston was regarded as having made the work for hire, and thus to have owned no rights in the movie. His daughter thus didn’t inherit any rights, but in France the force of the “right of paternity”, a moral right under le droit d’auteur, enabled her to assert creative control on her father’s behalf.

Professor Vaidhyanathan’s book is a notable achievement of compression, and anyone involved in the media will benefit from reading it. Maybe you’ll even be able to find it on Book Culture’s spinner now.