If, by the end of this column, you want to snail-mail me a letter, I might have to refuse on grounds that my home address is intellectual property. After all, I own my house and designated it as my place of work for this piece, a creative decision that entitles me to keep the address private.
Unless you want to pay for it.
This line of thinking, obnoxious as it may be, is the logical extreme of the legal arguments being made by a rising number of companies that say their information is proprietary, right down to things as public as time and location of services.
The debate reached a new level of absurdity a couple of weeks ago, when United Artists objected to its movie listings being carried by a Web site run by San Francisco's two daily newspapers. Like so many other companies, UA now sees an opportunity to provide the listings online itself, presumably with lucrative advertising alongside them.
Given that these legal grounds are about as sure as the San Andreas Fault, UA may simply be bluffing to get a better deal on the price it pays for the listings now printed in the pulp version of the newspapers. Even so, the gambit and the issues it raises carry tectonic consequences for the future of the publishing industry, both paper and digital.
The legions of city guides that are marching onto the Web, including one launched Sunday by Cox Interactive Media and the Microsoft Sidewalk series due next month, are counting on entertainment listings to draw readers and ad revenues--potentially draining the lifeblood of newspapers and magazines.
Interestingly enough, United Artists may actually have given the local papers some unanticipated ammunition. UA does not publish any newspapers, so it still must pay the dailies to circulate and publicize its movies. But it can put up a Web site just as easily as CitySearch, Yahoo, or Digital City in an attempt to trump such electronic regional publications in the listings market.
For that matter, so can Chez Panisse, Fog City Diner, and the scads of other local restaurants that help give the Bay Area its insufferable superiority complex. So could Union Square, Fisherman's Wharf, or any other business districts and tourist attractions that rely on paper publications for advertising and promotions.
All of this, of course, is predicated on the Sidewalks of the world giving way to the legal arguments put forth by United Artists. And Microsoft doesn't scare easily, especially when its attorneys are likely to have some effective weaponry of their own, if and when a suit should arise.
The legal precedents are already starting to emerge. Last year, the National Basketball Association sued America Online, Motorola, and a company called STATS to keep them from using game scores on their online and pager services. But a federal appellate court ruled against the NBA, saying that it does not own the scores.
Central to such cases is the definition of what information can be copyrighted. That, in turn, depends on whether the material in question is considered fact and, therefore, in the public domain.
Those issues seemed to have been settled for centuries until the Internet presented itself, providing a vehicle for instant mass distribution. Now, under a concept known by the obscure Latin term of suigeneris (which translates literally to "of a kind"), some are arguing that database companies can copyright any collection of facts in which they have made a "substantial investment."
This legal charade has been gaining momentum in some European countries, and the United States is not far behind. Still, its future is anything but clear.
In San Francisco, the newspapers aren't taking any chances; they've taken down the UA listings from their Web site. In Virginia, however, a Web site called CineVille continues to post listings despite threatened action by a local chain.
Which begs another important question: Will people get in the habit of going to theater Web sites, or will the chains end up shooting themselves in the foot by losing potential audiences from newspaper, magazine, and city guide sites?
United Artists may not have prevented the extinction of the paper dinosaurs, but it may have unintentionally slowed the aging process.