Making a better day from the Dark Knight's lesson in IP

Although there are some areas of geekhood where I test very positive indeed – perhaps obvious to anyone who saw me lugging a £10 eBay win iMac G3 home on the 253 bus up the Camden Road last night - I am fail elsewhere. Comic books and action movies, for example, with Jim Woodring's Frank as preferred superhero and Tarkovsky's Stalker a little fast-paced for my tastes.

Although there are some areas of geekhood where I test very positive indeed – perhaps obvious to anyone who saw me lugging a £10 eBay win iMac G3 home on the 253 bus up the Camden Road last night - I am fail elsewhere. Comic books and action movies, for example, with Jim Woodring's Frank as preferred superhero and Tarkovsky's Stalker a little fast-paced for my tastes.

Thus, I've never bought into the Batman celluloid franchise. Others at work have been salivating like starving hyenas at the prospect of Dark Knight: /me meh. Alone, so alone. The movie opened with thermonuclear alacrity in the US this weekend, scoring the studio fifty cents for every American citizen. DVD sales alone will probably let Warner Brothers buy Saudi Arabia and give a barrel of oil away with every disc.

All this, as Wired notes, while illegal downloads were available for anyone with heart black enough for Bittorrent. It's reminiscent of Bill Gates' famous admission last year that in some markets, such as China, endemic intellectual property violations have been central in protecting Windows' business model. Bluntly put, if China had been prevented from using Windows when it was too poor to buy it, it would have found another solution – and stuck with that when it got rich.

None of which is news. Staunch defenders of absolute IP rights dismiss such cases as irrelevant to the greater argument, rare black holes of success where the basic physics of digital commerce break down. Likewise, the economic and practical successes of the free software movement lie too far in the other direction to be allowed consideration. Meanwhile, entire sectors have been laid to dust by IP abuse: the expected UK educational software industry of the 1980s never got off the ground, despite enormous investment in the hardware to provide a large and enthusiastic market.

As in the Bible, there's enough seemingly contradictory information in the history of IP-based economics to allow anyone to find support for any position just by choosing their quotes with care. And, as with the Bible, this makes a religious approach to analysing the data less than useful when trying to work out exactly what's going on. It took the advent of rationalist textual analysis in the 19th century to properly deal with the roots of Christian culture; something still forcefully resisted by many, but an essential step in the history of religion and a proper understanding of how it works.

Thus it must be with intellectual property. It is impossible now to imagine a commercial world divorced from current ideas of IP, any more than it is to see one not entirely dependent on cheap oil. But current IP is as bad a fit for the digital age as cheap oil is for the 21st energy economy. To work out not only what happens next but how to engineer it for an optimistic outcome must be as high a priority as staunch defence of what worked in the past, or gleeful support for revolution first, sort out the mess later.

What we need more than ever is a serious, sustained and substantial mission to model the true economics of intellectual property. That is startlingly difficult – the economics equivalent of Apollo – but we have the tools for the job and the need for the answer. I can't think of a more important application of IT and intellect.

And besides, any science that can build a better future from the Joker, Steve Ballmer and a penguin is science worthy of the name. Let's get cracking.

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