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The Last Straw

The historians, the sociologists and the economists all agreed that the IP age was going to last for a long time, putting an end to the ever shortening cycles of paradigm shifts and re-branding of ages. It had seemed, in the vacuum left after the collapse of the IT age, that the exponential acceleration of age shifts had reached an end, with nothing to replace it.

It was, to be fair, a nice model - the feudal age lasted for almost a millennium, the industrial for two hundred years, the postindustrial for forty, the IT age for eight. Finally, in order to tidy things up and draw the line somewhere, the nineteen months after the spectacular death of the IT age in the global crash were named "The Stunned Age", and was proclaimed the last of the ages. The White Paper from Gartner Group outlining this period earned its author the 2003 Nobel Prize in Economics.

By then, the IP age had begun in earnest, although companies like Amazon and Unisys had already taken the first tentative steps in the heyday of the IT age. IP - Intellectual Property - was the new goldmine, and in an attempt to revive the entertainment industry and get another fat check of campaign money for the upcoming presidential elections, the republicans in the congress of USA changed the copyright laws. In order to prevent Mickey Mouse from ever falling into public domain, the new law stated that copyright and patents would never expire.

They also revised the recommendations and guidelines for the American patent office, removing the demands for scientific foundation and loosening the already watered down checks of prior art. In a speech broadcast to the nation, the president uttered the famous words that became the mantra for the dawning age:

"There are those who say that information wants to be free. I agree with this. Information should be free - free from abuse, free from theft, free from misuse. There are those who have no respect for information, no respect for creativity, for innovation, for knowledge, for thought or skill. These people are a threat to information, and we must protect the freedom of information at all costs."

The day after, the congress signed the approval of the new Information Protection Agency. IPA quickly became a force to reckon with. It absorbed MPAA and RIAA, recruited net trawlers and lawyers and brought to court anyone found infringing copyright in any way. A number of economical and military threats soon brought the rest of the Western world into the fold, and after the successful second Vietnam war, in which traders and makers of pirated software, music and movies were summarily executed by the IPA, the Eastern world, apart from China, followed.

After that followed a time of consolidation. Companies merged because it proved cheaper than cross-licensing patents to each other, and the need for patent lawyers and linguists to decipher the increasingly vague patent and trademark grants meant that small traders all but disappeared. The historical case of Sony-Apple-Nintendo-Ericsson vs. Siemens-IBM-Nokia established that the concept of prior art was no longer relevant and that a patent could be awarded anything not already patented, and SANE Ltd. were required to pay billions in legal costs and cease infringing the patented "rotating circular feature for transport and navigation" owned by SIN, Inc.

The anticipated ruling was not as disruptive as could have been expected, since Boeing-Ford-Daimler-Toyota-Volkswagen had spend the five years of the court proceedings in furious activity, getting patents for what had previously been known as "hovercraft", "propeller" and "jet engine", forcing the company's two competitors Airbus-Nasa-Honda-GM and BMW-Samsung-Philips to license almost all their basic technology.

As time passed, innovation slowed down at the same rate as patents and copyrights were awarded. No matter how new your concept was it got increasingly likely that it would be covered by one all-encompassing existing patent. When LucasArt-Texaco were awarded the patents for the cold fusion and faster-than-light travel technologies the researchers at Princeton-Cern presented, thanks to speculative patents filed ten years earlier, those technologies were not heard from again.

In the area of creative arts, Metallica-Madonna-Eminem became the only group left writing popular music, after the International IP Court ruled they owned the concept of putting words to music, and CBS-Fox-BBC remained the only broadcaster after winning the prolonged court battle against Disney-AOL-Time-Warner-Universal. Books were still written, but publishers had to pay royalties to Penguin-Harper-Collins-BritishLibrary-Xerox to be allowed to print them and distribute them.

In 2025, in a bid that rocked the stock markets all over the world, USA Inc. bought both United Kingdom, whose chairman Charles Mountbatten resigned and shot himself, Canada and Russia; the latter very cheaply as Russia owed USA huge sums of money for the use of the trademarked word "vodka", the rights of which USA Inc had bought from Sweden AB a few years before.

It seemed the historians, sociologists and economists were correct in their assessment, and the IP age was truly the last age of man, although they weren't allowed to say that since that phrase and its common variations were the property of the Theodore Sturgeon estate.

In Redmond, Seattle, a private meeting was held between the two old-timers, fondly known in the industry as the nerd and the bully. Times were getting hard for what had once been the most valuable company in the world - even the re-branding of the flagship products into Winux and Offux, and the changing of the company name to MicroSux, had done little to increase their fortunes.

The older of the two wiped his bald head with a handkerchief and sighed.

"You know, Bill, I'm beginning to despair."

His younger friend carefully cleaned his glasses. "What, you think we should throw in the towel and accept the bid from Sun-HewPaq?"

"Well, we're not getting younger, and the wolves are closing in. I mean, sure, we've never actually innovated, just bought technology, but it's getting too damned expensive. Hell, I'm too old for this; I should have retired ages ago! And so should you."

"No. I built this company from nothing to the most powerful company in the world. We owned the software market!"

"Well, we don't, anymore."

"You're right, we don't. So let's look at new markets."

"Like what? It's too late. We were too late. I read here..." he produced a printout from the CNN-AP-TASS website, "that Stora-Skanska has successfully patented houses built of both wood, concrete, bricks and metal. There's nothing left."

The younger man looked up, eyes alight with hope. "Is that news? Don't you see? If they can patent something like that it must mean there are still lots of things unprotected!"

When the older man didn't reply, he leaned forward eagerly. "Steve, come on! We've been through a lot together. Let's give it another shot. I promise, if I haven't come up with something that will turn our fortunes within a month I'll agree to selling and retire."

"Fine, I'll give you a month, but if you haven't found anything by the end of it I'll retire."

Four weeks passed, in which Bill worked furiously, accessing the vast archives of the LibCon databases from his high-tech residence, drinking Pepsi-Coke and eating junk food sent in by McPizzaHutKing. He felt young again, invigorated. That's how it had all started, fifty years ago, and he felt an unexpected thrill at being back in the same seat again. No programmers, no spin doctors, no trappings of being a statesmanlike CEO - just him and a deal that had to be fixed. The computer he used was immeasurably faster than the one he had started out with, but the operating system and the programs were still his.

And they worked together with him in ways he could not have imagined back then, sifting data, following associations, stray thoughts, leads... That all lead to the dismaying sign (c). Everything he could think of was covered already, apart from the one item that had, in a groundbreaking deal that shook the medical world, been declared to be in the public domain - the human genome.

As the deadline his old partner had set up drew closer, Bill started to lose faith. Slurping the dregs from a can of sweet, sticky fizzy drink, he stared at the screen projected on his retinas and said as much. To himself, to the world a large. To the computer, which responded, in a sexy feminine voice: "That is an un-provable statement" and then promptly crashed, leaving him staring at a blue square filled with gibberish.

His mouth agape, Bill stared at the screen like an old friend thought to be long dead. That hadn't happened in ages. The critics could say what they wanted, but the latest incarnation of Winux was, finally, stable. It just didn't crash. The developers under his command, now mostly sacked, had thought of everything.

Almost everything. Could it be that...? Yes!

Shaking with a feeling of success, he carefully wrote a patent application and sent it to the powerful linguistic computers at the International Patent Office, to be analysed, assessed, and, with any luck, approved.

The ten minutes he had to wait were the longest of his life, but finally the message came back - the message that would save his ailing fortunes and make him once again the most powerful man in the world: application successful.

As soon as he came into the conference room, Steve sensed a change. The other man was overflowing with confidence.

"Did you find anything?"

Bill grinned happily. "Patent granted late last night, and I've filed some copyright and trademarks too. We're going to be rich again, Steve!"

He handed over a thick file of papers, knowing that despite having led the software company for decades, Steve still preferred to read from print, rather than a screen. The rustling of the turning of sheets were all that could be heard for a while, then a sigh.

"Boy, you were always accused of wanting to take over the world, but this..." Steve grinned. "You just have!"

Bill nodded. "I should think so. We just need to write an end user license agreement and settle on a price. Should we offer bulk discounts, do you think?"

"Yes, but let's keep the annual license fee relatively small, and charge extra for more advanced features. Everybody will want them anyway. It is time, I think, to call in the lawyers and linguists."

The historians, the sociologists and the economists all agreed that the IP age came to an end when the headquarters of the International Patent Office and IP Court were stormed by enraged citizens. The rebellion quickly swept all over the world, and when it was over a new order was hammered out. The old nations that had all but disappeared in the commercialization of the last twenty-five years, returned, and companies were forcefully split up. Nobody wanted to risk that the same thing happened again.

On the secure grounds of the company compound in Redmond, two old men were found dead, having been struck with lightning. Which was odd, considering they were indoors. On the table between them laid the issue of Wall Street Journal that had broken the news to an unsuspecting world three weeks earlier, its headline covering the whole front page:

"MicroSux patents God."


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