Bitter Brew – Reactions to Keurig’s odd IP decision.

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Here’s the latest java jive:  Green Mountain Coffee manufactures the Keurig, single-cup coffeemaker, and last week the company made the announcement that it would use a DRM-like technology to prevent customers who’ve bought their machines from using any K-Cups other than the Green Mountain brand.  We all recognize this as the personal printer business model — make the machine pretty cheap then bleed the customer until the end of time on expensive ink cartridges.  This is almost certainly a dumb move on Green Mountain’s part, and it’s not a particularly attractive use of intellectual property protection, but it has next to nothing to do with copyright. Of course, that doesn’t stop pundits from crawling out of the woodwork ready to unpack their adjectives against all things copyright and IP.

Marcus Wohlsen in Wired offers the headline “Why Copyrighted Coffee Might Cripple the Internet of Things.”  I do love headlines in the digital age — so catchy, so upworthyish, so misleading.  For one thing, coffee can’t be copyrighted; maybe there’s some software linking the K-Cup and Keurig machine, but that’s probably a copyright stretch, both for Green Mountain and for its critics.  Expert copyright defenders tend to roll their eyes at this stuff, as they do with other abuses and misuses of a perfectly good set of laws they defend on behalf of actual authors of valuable, protectable works. These side shows give serious IP issues a bad rap, and writers like Wohlsen are only too happy to help.  Still, it’s a storm in a coffee cup, referencing this soon-to-be-overlooked story to predict the failure of “the internet of things.”  The internet of things is the phrase used to describe mass interconnectivity in business and domestic life to the extent that our ordinary products, like coffee makers and refrigerators, become smart.  The example used for years has been the fridge that knows when you’re low on your favorite brand of milk and orders more to be delivered.

But in order to realize the paradisiacal dream that is the internet of things, techno-utopians promote open technology because the only way we’re ever going to enjoy the privilege of having our appliances tell us what to do will be to remove proprietary technologies that are central to competition among manufacturers.  One smart article I read a couple months ago by Mike Elgan suggests that the internet of things might never come to pass, and he refers to the simple example of the basket of remotes, each remote representing a different manufacturer and a unique software link between device and its controller.  To pursue the internet of things would require a degree of non-competition among technology makers several hundred times more complex than the remote example.  And until the recent wave of techno-utopianism backed by a lot of dubious academic theory, competition used to be a cornerstone of a free market.  And in light of the fact that the internet of data has thus far created some very large monopolies, the prospect of embracing universal openness is not without its pitfalls.  If people really want a home that thinks, buys products automatically, orders services, the probability is high that this can lead to the Wal-Martization of multiple business sectors.

Of course, a very natural reason the internet of things might not happen that has nothing to do with copyright or any IP protections, is that people may not want it to happen.  60 Mintues has recently done a fair bit of reporting on the scale and scope of what’s being done with the data we share voluntarily or inadvertently via the internet, and the revelations are startling.  Did you know, for example, that there are data brokers — people who trade in your personal information like any other commodity.  And we’re not talking about traditional, semi-innocuous market research like you prefer Coke or Pepsi, we’re talking about medical information, sexual orientation or proclivities, political views, family history, all compiled and composited to create a dossier about you that is sold for profit, not entirely with your permission, without any oversight; and it’s all perfectly legal.  So far.  We’ll see what happens when a job applicant sues for being wrongfully turned down because he’s an alcoholic a decade sober.  I mean, if he wants to be a pilot, this is probably understandable, but how about a data-entry assistant at an accounting firm? Take the recent, outrageous attempts in Arizona and South Carolina to legislate gayness out of existence, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to consider how bad actors might abuse the most intimate information about individuals being collected and sold for profit.  Thus, it’s entirely possible that as consumers become more aware of the extraordinarily invasive business model that makes internet services so “free,” they may come to reject the internet of things, uncomfortable with the prospect that one day walls really will talk.

I’m not surprised that tech junkies will gather in Austin at a SXSW event this week to fawn over presentations by Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, both video-conferenced in from their asylums in Russia and the Ecuadoran Embassy in the UK, respectively.  After all, too many of us suffer from this bizarre delusion that somehow social media and digital connectedness is the antidote to government overreach despite the fact that the data these internet companies gather, consolidate, and sell dwarfs the capacity of the entire intelligence community, even if it were solely comprised of bad actors, which it is not.  Meanwhile, so-called defenders of “our rights” in the digital age — from funded organizations to individual pundits — make much ado about nothing over your right to make coffee the way you want because copyright because Hollywood, dammit!  Yeah, it’s a convoluted kind of logic, but if you think I’m inventing all this conflation, read Dan Gillmor’s piece in the Guardian, which segues rather quickly from the Keurig story to blasting away at the “Copyright Cartel,” as he calls it.

I remain concerned that this utopian notion of “openness” is evangelized most ardently by the interests who stand to emerge as winners on a re-designed playing field.  We need only look at the impenetrable dominance of Amazon to see how more interconnectivity can actually lead to a market that is anything but open.   Meanwhile, side show barkers keep telling people that intellectual property protections like copyrights and patents — systems which have been proven economic drivers for a couple of centuries — are standing between us and a future we may not even want.  I don’t know.  I’m off to brew a fresh pot of coffee.

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