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Just whose idea is it anyway?

In the new `Age of Copyright,' dynasties are founded on cartoon characters, lawyers play extreme sports, and we all break the law. It's never been easier to stake a creative claim -- or jump one.

July 23, 2006|Marc Porter Zasada | Special to The Times

LIKE so many other people in America, I'm working on a groundbreaking book. Never mind the precise subject, but trust me: I've identified a narrow crack on the social science shelf, accessed a number of little-known theories, and I plan to have my moment in the sun. OK, few of the actual ideas in this book will be original. I mean, how could I hope to have an original idea? Not with 150 million-plus blogs churning out ideas 24/7, not with 2.5 billion-plus Internet sites to consult, not with 1,000,000-plus other groundbreaking books of all kinds published worldwide each year.

By now, however, I've read the relevant names, I've cut and pasted the finest bon mots and I've sorted everything into neat folders on my hard drive -- ready for, as they say, "repurposing." My job will be to weave, redact and attribute. And if, in the end, I manage to link other people's thoughts in a sufficiently clever fashion, their ideas may eventually become mine -- at least in the mind of the public.

Still, I'm troubled. Shall I really be the "author" of this work? Can I claim to be an "authority"? Should I worry about other people's

To be certain on this last point, I've invited my friend David Nimmer to lunch at a local bistro -- pricey, but far cheaper than his hourly fee. David is a noted copyright attorney and scion of a legal dynasty. His late father, Melville B. Nimmer, wrote the standard text, "Nimmer on Copyright," and David keeps up the revised editions of the 10 thick volumes, which occupy a considerable shelf in his high-tech office at Irell & Manella in Century City. David has represented a host of clients, among them the Worldwide Church of God and the Walt Disney Co., a bingo card programmer and Martha Graham's heir. He even represented Napster for a time. Until rebuffed by the Supreme Court last month, he represented the granddaughter of A.A. Milne in her efforts to liberate Winnie the Pooh -- perhaps the world's most profitable intellectual property -- from the chubby bear's various handlers.

Melville B. Nimmer once represented Disney on the same issue, and to some in the copyright world, David is known simply as "the son."

Unlike most of us, my friend often has the luxury of choosing battles for his own enjoyment, and his articles sometimes have a bemused quality: " 'Fairest of Them All' and Other Fairy Tales of Fair Use" or "Brains and Other Paraphernalia of the Digital Age." At 51, sitting behind a plate of pasta, the current Nimmer is a comfortable-looking man with bushy eyebrows and a deceptive smile. He often lectures at UCLA, and at first, to your possible peril, you might mistake him for a pure academic.

"Are not all literary works, in a sense, derived?" he asks after quizzing me about my methods. "Ideas, of course, cannot be copyrighted, only the tangible presentation of those ideas. You just need to present them in a new way."

Already, I'm figuring how I will reorder successions of thought and invert graphs of data. My efforts may not be quite as good as the original, but I swear the result will demonstrate originality. More important, if I do manage to create something new, I will own a little piece of the future -- in fact, more and more of the future, thanks to Congress, which keeps extending intellectual property rights and establishing new intellectual dynasties.

The latest extension, accomplished thanks to lobbying by folks including Disney, will allow my heirs to own my words, images or music for 70 years after I die, so together we could easily hold onto something for a century, and some unborn grandchild could join that rapidly growing class of aristocracy known as the "copyright heir."

Cold, hard copyrighted cash

Not everyone seems to have noticed, but it's clear we recently zipped past the "information economy" and straight into the "copyright economy." It's no longer about access to information -- everyone has access. Now it's about ownership of the characters, stories, tunes, trademarks, software and other ephemera of our daily lives. If serfdom returns to L.A., we won't end up as peons working on other people's landed estates -- no, the great dynasties of the future may be built on cartoon characters.

Not surprisingly, thanks to this little shift in the economy, a new sport has arisen in the land. It's called "extreme copyright," and the people who play this game are the ones who have me worried.

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