Brilliant Onion Video Explains Copyright Dysfunction

CopyrightI think people are often confused as to exactly what I am talking about with regard to intellectual property (IP) laws and how they are out of control. They also often think that it is strange that someone who actually makes (very little) money from royalties would feel this way. On a personal level, it is just because the IP laws are not set up for creative workers; they are set up to ensure corporate profits. And there are far better ways to encourage creative work besides copyrights and patents. One is Dean Baker’s idea for Artist Freedom Vouchers.

But rather than get into such details, I’d like to share with you a two and a half minute video. The Onion produced it, How To Successfully Sue Other Moms Who Steal Your Parenting Tricks. It is part of a series by a character, Grace Manning-Devlin. She is a vblogger who produces a show called, “Mothers Should.” In it, she provides parenting advice to other upper class mothers. Perhaps the best is, Baby-Naming Tips For New Moms. In it, she explains that the hottest trend in baby naming is, “Naming your baby after jobs that no longer exist.” For boys, these include names like, “Cooper, Tanner, Milkman, Serf…” And for girls, “Lector, Bluestocking, and Town-Hag.” She also recommends names from the Bible, like “Daniel” and “Shan’t.”

The video on copyright and patents gets the tone completely right. Check it out:

I’m not a parent, so I probably don’t get all the jokes here. But the main thing seems to be that she is copyrighting trivial things. But even more than that, she’s copyrighting things that clearly didn’t originate with her like the smiley face bubble bath. This is quite common. The most infamous example is the song, Happy Birthday to You. The song dates back to the mid-19th century. But some company got the idea of copyrighting it in 1935, and people have been paying for it ever since.

The video also highlights the use of legal harassment by copyright holders. That gets back to “Happy Birthday to You.” In most cases, it isn’t worth the expense to to fight against frivolous IP claims; it’s cheaper just to pay. So when Manning-Devlin was in Whole Foods (Of course!) and saw another woman using the copyrighted “craisens tip,” she gets her lawyer to send out a cease and desist letter. This is standard behavior in the corporate world. Apple computer has been doing this with “look and feel” lawsuits for 25 years, despite the fact that Apple also “stole” the same ideas from people before them.

Also really interesting is how parents are supposed to gain access to all these exciting parenting tips. For $24.99 per month, mothers can use up to 20 of Manning-Devlin’s “hottest tips.” This is similar to software and videos, which are never sold but rather licensed. (It makes you wonder: how did she know the Whole Foods woman wasn’t a subscriber?) But even more funny is “Grace’s Public Domain Tricks,” which are, like all of her ideas, things that were already around, but have clearly been around a lot longer. For example, there is the “Easy Couch Fort.” I’m sure these public domain ideas she’s claimed and “given back” are being written off as lost revenue.

The argument in favor of IP laws has always been that it encourages creative work. But it is clear at this point that they do just the opposite. No one, for example, can write a Harry Potter novel without licensing it (which means no one will be allowed to except for JK Rowling). But if that weren’t the case, I’m sure that other people would have written Harry Potter novels that were as good or better than the original ones. I don’t begrudge Rowling her money — in fact, she seems like a thoroughly decent person. But she didn’t write those books because she thought she would become a billionaire. I have little doubt she would have been thrilled with the thought of simply making a living as a writer.

So none of this stuff is about what creative workers do. What’s funny about The Onion video is that the (supposed) creative worker is acting the way that the corporatocracy does. Remember: “An idea is like a seed: it can only turn into a tree if you kill all the birds trying to eat it.”


One thing that I really liked in the video was the use of jump cuts which are so vblog. I find it annoying. These people can buy nice cameras, lighting, and editing software. But to shoot with an extra camera or otherwise provide cutaways is asking too much. But note: I’m not against jump cuts. But if someone is going to the trouble of making something look professional, why not do that? It’s all about time, of course. It is easy to automate all the rest. Proper editing takes time. And talent.

See also: Copyright: Forever Less One Day.

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