Intellectual Property Lawsuits — What Would Bill Shakespeare Do?

A Note from Aaron: I published this post on my old blog when I was in my 20s and thought I knew more than I did. When launching my new site, I could either trash old content like this or port it over. I decided to port it over as a personal archive and reminder of my own evolution. In other words, sorry it sucks.


We all know the story: Two young lovers meet. But there’s a problem: They’re from feuding families. Despite the animosity between their families, the lovers get married. But before they have a chance to enjoy their happily ever after, one of the girl’s relatives kills the boy’s best friend, then the boy kills the girl’s relative, the authorities want to punish the boy, he flees, a plan is devised for the couple to be reunited, but something goes tragically wrong and the two lovers end up dead.

Yes, the story I’m referring to is the famous verse poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet published in 1562 by Arthur Brooke.

Wait… that’s, not the story of two star-crossed young lovers you thought I was describing? My bad. You must have thought I was referencing the very similar tale published a little later in the 16th century by that famous man named William — Palace of Pleasure by William Painter.

What? That’s still not the story you thought I was describing? I guess I can’t really blame you. Those other works are a bit obscure, and as 21st century readers, you can’t be expected to know every story published in the 1500’s. Clearly, the story I’m referencing and I expect everyone to at least have heard of is none other than that famous Broadway musical, West Side Story.

Why bring up West Side Story in a blog that explores the impact of the digital age on society? Reason number one: I’m not afraid to admit my appreciation of Broadway musicals in a public forum. Reason number two: West Side Story remains one of the most beloved and respected Broadway musicals of all time despite being an unapologetic copy of arguably the most famous love story ever told.

Isn’t this the 21st century? Where are all the cries of plagiarism? Where are all the intellectual property lawsuits? How can we, in good conscience, let such violations of basic principles of individuality and proprietary ownership go unpunished? What kind of morally reprehensible lessons are we teaching our children?

I’ll tell you what kinds of lessons West Side Story teaches our children. It teaches them the Human Condition is universal. It teaches them feelings of love, feelings of betrayal, feelings of lust, anger, confusion, indecision, idealism, and hope were as important to a 16th century Italian peasant as they are to a 21st century American schoolgirl. It teaches them ideas are not commodities to be defended with courts and lawyers, but instead, ideas best serve the world when they are shared, expanded upon, and recontextualized to inhabit spheres of use in which they otherwise might never have benefited some of those very people they were designed to enlighten.

So tell me, what lessons are we learning from the ever-mounting pile of intellectual property lawsuits for digital technologies? Are we meant to think a touchscreen interface with logo-labeled applications is a technological privilege only to be enjoyed by people able to spend $500 on a phone and an additional $100 every month for service? Should we believe, within a world of exponentially increasing archived information, an algorithm specifically designed to help us better find the information we most need can best serve us so long as it’s only made available by one company? Can we be convinced a regularly updating list of information created by our friends and family is the property of the company helping us create that list?

Maybe that’s exactly what we should believe. Maybe a visionary like Steve jobs invented the best possible example of a smart phone, and while other companies might be able to alter the concept, they can’t improve it. Maybe a company like Google can successfully filter the Internet only by hiding how its filter operates. And maybe the tool that enables content generation should rightfully deserve some claim upon that content. I honestly don’t have a “who’s right” and “who’s wrong” answer for the alarming explosion of technology IP lawsuits.

What I do have, however, is history. Before the European Enlightenment, the concept of plagiarism didn’t have the taboo it carries today. But sometime during those years of philosophical exploration, people began to see their thoughts as valuable property. And property, as we all know, is often followed closely by theft.

Walls began to go up around ideas. The old models of learning through imitation that had so well served folks like Benjamin Franklin, Sir Isaac Newton, Shakespeare, da Vinci, Chaucer, Cicero, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, began to be replaced with academic models encouraging “unique” ideas. The model also created our modern conception of plagiarism as a despicable act of immorality. As a result, few non-violent crimes are considered more reprehensible than the theft of an idea.

Take a look at those names again: Benjamin Franklin, Sir Isaac Newton, Shakespeare, da Vinci, Chaucer, Cicero, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates. They represent nine of the most significant contributors to Western culture, and every one of them relied on, as Mr. Newton so eloquently phrased it, “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

By the way, Isaac Newton didn’t invent that phrase. It dates back to the writings of a 12th century French Neo-Platonist philosopher named Bernard of Chartres.

I can’t sanctimoniously preach the ideals of the past while knowing full well if I write the next Harry Potter or invent the next Google I’ll have half a dozen patent and trademark applications filed before lunch. But I can wonder if protecting my ideas from others will, in the grand scheme of things, do more harm than good. Just take a look at that list of names again and ask yourself, would you rather a few million dollars worth of licensing fees, or would you rather see your name alongside Franklin, Newton, Shakespeare, and Socrates?

I suppose the answer to that question is different for everyone, and I don’t know yours. Heck, I don’t even know mine. The only thing I do know is if my dad ever becomes a king, I need to keep an eye on my uncle because there’s a good chance he’ll try killing my dad to steal his wife and take his throne, leaving me to act like a brooding prince seeking revenge with help from my two best friends . And the only reason I know that is because I saw it in the Lion King.

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I teach in Duke University’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship program and founded RocketBolt. I write about startups, pedagogy, entrepreneurship, engineering, and poetry. They’re all related, I promise.

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