Web Watch: Prince move opens up a whole can of worms
Giving his latest album away free with a Sunday newspaper was enough to propel the pop star Prince on to the news and business pages.
Now he's done it again with the announcement that he has threatened to sue YouTube (www.youtube.com), eBay (www. ebay.com) and The Pirate Bay (http://thepiratebay.org) for breach of copyright by supplying his music or merchandise.
The warning has already resulted in a huge reduction in the number of Prince-related items on the world's biggest video sharing site. However, what makes it so notable is that it's the first serious attempt by a recording artist to police his intellectual property on the internet.
The 1970s band The Village People have also threatened action against YouTube after some of their material was "mashed" together with video footage shot in Nazi Germany.
While video sharing sites are a boon for new artists as they attempt to distribute their material to a wider audience (Avril Lavigne's video Girlfriend has been viewed nearly 60 million times on YouTube), the benefit to artists with a large back catalogue is less clear cut.
Prince and the company that owns the rights to The Village People's music have employed internet law specialists Web Sheriff (www.websheriff.com) to follow the matter up.
But pop stars are not the only people with intellectual property rights. The advent of digital photography, for example, has been of huge benefit in one way but a major problem in another.
Once upon a time, photographers supplied a picture by way of a print. If somebody wanted more than one copy, he or she had to order another one and pay for it. Now a photograph sent in digital format can be on a thousand computers in a matter of days.
This issue, however, also involves inventions, software, hardware (like the iPod, for example) and even trademarks.
The whole field of intellectual property is a minefield of controversy.
Some reject the term entirely, arguing that it's wrong to throw copyright, patents and trademarks – and their associated laws - into one pot.
Others, however, like the Government's Business Link web site (www.businesslink.gov.uk), argue that your intellectual property could be the life blood of your business, and thus it's crucial to protect it.
It advises business owners to do an audit of their intellectual assets to identify exactly what they are.
They can include even something as simple as a brochure or a database.
The good news is that intellectual property created by an employee generally belongs to the company. But if you call in a freelance contractor to provide a niche service, how long are you entitled to use the processes or material that you gain as a result?
If you are distributing documents containing valuable ideas to third parties then ensure that they are covered by confidentiality agreements and protected by a password.
When the internet is involved, of course, material has a habit of being duplicated many times over, at no benefit to its original creator.
And that's the problem for Prince and – by extension – for YouTube. As soon as the video sharing site takes down one of the pop maestro's songs, more are uploaded. Google (www. google.com), which owns YouTube, is working on a new filtering tool that will allow it to stop the uploading of copyright material.
But there is also another problem. Universal Music (www. umusic.com), Prince's former record company, persuaded YouTube to remove a video of a child dancing to one of the star's songs, posted to the site by the child's mother.
That, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff,org), was a step too far, since the family derived no financial benefit from it. EFF and others are concerned that such action will push the pendulum too far in the other direction and create a climate of fear that could stifle creativity.
An unusual approach to this whole issue can be found at Creative Commons (http://creative commons.org), which allows authors, scientists, artists and educators to mark their work with the freedoms they want it to carry.
Like most things, however, intellectual property involves money somewhere along the line.
I can't see the discoverer of perpetual motion - if such a person ever exists - licensing his or her work for the free use of others.
Bill Law has 30 years' experience in IT, and works in the industry for Fujitsu Services in Northern Ireland. The opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily those of Fujitsu Services. He can be contacted at Bill.H.Law@uk.fujitsu.com.