09 September 2009

A Sad Indictment

In a follow-up to a Radio 4 programme about seat-belts being made compulsory, the BBC website carried an article outlining the thread of the show. One sentence felt particularly depressing:

Yet in the 1970s and early 1980s, there were repeated Parliamentary battles about our right to go hurtling through a sheet of glass - battles which aroused a level of passion that seems strange today.

If it is now viewed as strange for parliamentarians to stand up to defend the right of people to participate in an activities which pose little demonstrable risk to others, it’s a sad indictment of the parliamentarians we have.

The effect of compulsory seat-belts is something I've blogged about previously. It is a law I'm still very uneasy about, not just for civil liberties reasons, but also for practical reasons; while it seems undeniable that the law has prevented some deaths, there has been an unwillingness to consider the possibility that the law may have increased other risks. As is so often the case with precautionary laws, the possibility of unintended consequences is ignored.

One of the most authoritative voices on the subject is John Adams, who has, for some considerable time, pointed out that, while compulsory seat-belts might increase the safety of drivers who may not otherwise wear them, there is a possibility that those drivers' increased sense of safety could result in less cautious driving and greater risk to other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. The strength of the theory of risk compensation has been demonstrated across a range of activities, something the article acknowledges, but in what feels like a very weasely way:

His general theory of risk compensation is now accepted among transport safety experts in some situations, although not when it comes to seatbelt wearing, where Adams ideas are still some way outside the mainstream.

To me, it seems a little desperate for somebody to acknowledge that an increased perception of safety can result in increased risk taking, but continue to deny that the effect could have any impact in one specific situation.

For anybody wanting to hear the opposing argument to the one the BBC promotes, I recommend reading John Adams’ response.

03 September 2009

Patently Absurd

Trevor Bayliss, with the support of Vince Cable, has called for patent infringement to be made a criminal offence, in part by using the argument that it would bring patents in line with copyright, for which infringement can be a criminal offence.

I've posted on previous occasions about my lack of enthusiasm for the treatment of ideas as property, but putting that aside, this argument shows the problems that can arise when people start to accept the term "intellectual property" and treat copyright and patent laws as if they are interchangeable, when they are fundamentally different. Take Vince Cable's comment:

There isn't the protection that exists in other areas of intellectual property. If people steal ideas from creative artists, you can go to prison for that. But patent theft is just part of life.

Putting to one side his use of weasel words such as "steal" and "theft," the major flaw in his position is that he assumes copyright and patent work the same way, which is not the case. The crucial difference is highlighted by the word "copyright." It prevents the direct copying of a piece of work. If somebody independently creates the same, or similar, piece of work, no infringement occurs. Patents are very different. If one person patents an idea and a second person independently comes up with the same idea, the second person would be infringing the patent if they used that idea, irrespective of the fact that they are completely unaware that somebody else has had the same idea.

So, as much as I might disagree with the criminalisation of copyright infringement, at least you can tell fairly easily whether or not a particular act is criminal. With patents, that would not be the case. Without being aware of every single patent which is currently in force, there would be no way of knowing for sure whether or not using a given idea would make you a criminal, a situation which is at odds with the basic principles of the rule of law.

Of course, people could argue in favour of criminalising knowingly infringing a patent, with accidental infringement continuing to be a civil matter. This would, however, bring its own set of problems:

Firstly, determining whether or not a patent has knowingly been infringed would be difficult and in many cases, impossible. Unlike copyright, where it is highly unlikely that two people would independently produce the same song, book or film, patents can apply to inventions where it is perfectly possible for two people to independently have the same idea.

Secondly, if only knowing infringement is a crime, it encourages wilful ignorance. People may deliberately avoid checking for pre-existing patents to reduce the risk of being criminalised.

All in all, I think the suggestion is one of the worst I've seen for some time.