Home > Apple, Idiots > Steve Jobs is a modern-day Thomas Edison.

Steve Jobs is a modern-day Thomas Edison.

And not in a good way, according to Whirling Dervish Merlin Mann, in a post on his big-man blog “kung fu grippe.” (It’s a tumblr blog, so you know he’s important!)

Merlin wrote a nice post about Thomas Edison and over-zealous patent-protection:

You a big fan of aggressive IP enforcement? Like to think a well-litigated market is a healthy market? Hate those little entrepreneurial nuisances like “competition from emerging media?”

Well, then, you would have loved the early 20th century.

Because you had to get Thomas Edison’s permission to make any movie. Then you had to pay him.

There’s a common thread with these turf wars, be it Edison, Apple, Disney, or anyone else: the upstart makes something and bucks a previous trend, revolutionizes something and revels in the ability to buck said trend. Said upstart becomes a new market leader, and fights like the Dickens (literally; Charles was a bruiser) to keep other upstarts from doing the same thing to him. They’re like the Sith in that way.

Thomas Edison, for a time, actually had patents on making movies. The whole goddamn process. He wanted to get money for any use of his technologies, because all of his ideas were his own, I’m sure, with zero influence from anyone or anything that came before him, and because his patents covered movie making (basically the concept, given the times) he could legally put the kibosh on the movie industry. Had he been successful, in fact, the industry — and perhaps the entire crapdamn world — would be completely different than it is today. But he wasn’t successful, which is good, because I knew Thomas and he was a dick. Seriously, Thomas Edison was a total douche. We had lunch a few times and every single time he’d get up “to use the bathroom” right before the bill came, then would climb out of the bathroom window and ride away on his mangey horse.

I got him back when I ran over his horse with my Model-T, but that’s a story for another time.

Anyway, filmmakers wanted to be filmmakers in a way they could afford, without paying crazy royalties. So they went from the East Coast to the West Coast, to get out of the range of Edison’s lawyers.

And they made Hollywood.

Ignoring American Idol and Arrested Development, I think we can agree that it was a good thing.

According to Merlin:

The end came with a federal court decision in United States v. Motion Picture Patents Co. on October 1, 1915, which ruled that the MPPC’s acts went “far beyond what was necessary to protect the use of patents or the monopoly which went with them” and was therefore an illegal restraint of trade under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

So overzealous protection of patents — at all costs by a douche — resulted in a functional nullification of said patents, with an empire in ruins, and all the rest.

Okay, Edison’s empire wasn’t in ruins, as he had other logs in the fire. I just wish it had destroyed him because as I said, he was a total douche, and one time he stole Amelia Earheart out from under my nose at a barn dance.

Anyway:

So, to summarize.

Early 1900s:

  • Maniac entrepreneur creates monopolistic business models plus means for legally enforcing them.
  • People balk, running away from the center of power in order to create a sunny, guerilla-run safe haven.
  • Maniac gets all mad about his system breaking and sues/blames everybody he can find.

One hundred ten years later:

  • Maniacs still try to imitate and enforce Edison-like, legally-enforced monopolies.
  • People still balk and run away from the center of power to create sunny, guerilla-run safe havens.
  • Maniacs still get all mad about their system breaking and still sue/blame everybody they can find.

Yep. Even today, the maniacs win for a while. But those safe havens have gotten surprisingly mobile, and increasingly difficult to un-safen. Funny how that works.

The media landscape is the way it is because patent enforcement was thwarted. And as much as I love Steve and want to have his manbabies, the world is better for that failure of enforcement, goddamn it.

God, it’s so weird disagreeing with something Steve’s done. It feels wrong, but I can’t help it.

Make the pain stop!

Anyway. Steve himself benefited from Edison’s inability to enforce his patents, and from the inability of innumerable other people to keep their products proprietary. The proper way to spread culture is to let ideas out, let people remix them and make them bigger and better.

Oh, God, I think I’m going to throw up.

Apple benefitted from using other people’s ideas, and Steve even acknowledged that at one point explicitly, saying “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” The value of that theft, Steve — I’m so sorry! — the value of that theft isn’t any less just because you’re the one being stolen from.

And, anyway, Steve — I love you! — it’s not like you have anything to worry about, because you’re Steve goddamn Jobs, and you’ve got the most fertile, supple, kissable brain in the world; you can rebuild any industry over breakfast!

Shut up.

(Not you, Steve. Everyone else.)

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  1. bk
    March 11, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    what kind of asshole doesn’t like arrested development? I thought I knew you and loved you, walt mossberg, but you are some kind of jerk.

  2. tehnores
    March 11, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    Damn, Walt, you had lunch with Edison? How old are you?

  3. TAE-reincarnated
    April 4, 2010 at 1:17 am

    He’d have to be up there close to a hundred.
    So…your the one that hit my horse.

    And FYI, Amelia kissed like a real boyscout.
    Poor lassie never did learn how to use a
    compass though. It’s a real shame.

  4. gg
    July 21, 2010 at 4:04 am

    Where’s this century’s Tesla when yo need him?

    • John
      July 27, 2010 at 11:52 pm

      gg :Where’s this century’s Tesla when yo need him?

      …ask Woz

  1. August 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm
  2. August 25, 2011 at 7:34 pm

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