Intellectual Property

Tom foolishly asked me about Intellectual Property… read this and learn why you shouldn’t ask me about it!

So, first off, “Intellectual Property” describes three distinct things: trademarks, patents, and copyright. Intellectual property is a monopoly granted by the state.

Traditionally, in the English-speaking countries, it is formulated as a bargain, where the public trades its right to use an item of IP in return for some benefit. For example, give Dyson a monopoly on the production of cyclone hoovers, to justify all the years he spent inventing cyclone hoovers.

In Europe, patents and copyright tend to be seen as a moral right of the creator. I don’t know much more about that.

Personally, I think there are two important, distinct ways in which IP is property (functionally; morally I’ll get to…). Firstly, by law it cannot be copied – this is IP as a commodity. Secondly, it cannot be reused to make something new – this is IP as a means of production.

In the latter case, I’d say all the usual Marxist observations apply.

Trademarks are simplest – they ban multiple uses of the same name in the same market. This actually seems pretty damn sensible to me – nobody can make another beer called “Belhaven Best” and trick me into drinking it, but someone could set up “Belhaven’s Best Chip Shop” without having to think twice.

Patents seem pretty sensible in the case of Mr Dyson, if you’re going to have a market system. People invest in making physical things, and then they get a time-limited monopoly on their use.

It should be recognised, though, that this does hold back human progress – I can’t invent and sell the Al hoover, a Dyson that can also make you tea, until the monopoly expires. I dislike patents for that reason, but I think they are necessary if you want private capitalists to invest in R&D.

Where it stops being an annoyance and becomes morally abhorrent is medicine. I’m sure you’ve seen a zillion news stories about drug patents and the third world, I won’t regurgitate them.

Software patents are also a menace. The field moves too quickly for a 20 year monopoly, and the same objections as I’m about to make to copyright apply…

Copyright is completely, 100% fucked. Dead in the water. This is because the marginal cost of copying information is now pretty much zero, and (broadly speaking) anyone can get copies of any public information.

Interestingly, this makes copyrightable works a public good ( ) – so even capitalist economics agrees here.

I think that in the case of software, free licensing (where the software can be copied and modified) is essential, because software now controls so much of our lives. Lawrence Lessig (google him) argues that software is now similar to law in this sense.

Most importantly to me, the free internet represents an enormous opportunity for human progress. The last time the cost of copying information fell so drastically was the printing press, and that enabled the reformation, the enlightenment, and the American revolution! There’s no way we can keep the internet free if the programs running on it are controlled by powerful minority interests such as the state, Microsoft, or Apple.

( for more on free software )

The economic effect also applies to music, films, games etc. Leaving the moral debate to one side, it simply isn’t possible to enforce copyright any more. If someone wants to be a professional artist, they will have to find something other than sales of a freely copyable good to make ends meet. Morality doesn’t matter, it’s just a fact.

Oh, and sharing is a moral right, and if we can ‘steal’ ideas from each other we get lots more better ideas quicker.

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