This is just going to be a quick post about a subject I’ve thought about blogging over for for quite a while now. People with a financial interest in maintaining the status quo speak of “Intellectual Property” all the time and the more they talk about it without being questioned, the more people actually buy into the concept. But let me state unequivocally:
“Intellectual Property” is a MYTH.
There is just no such thing and I will explain why. Consider first the traditional notion of property. Property results from the finite nature of physical resources. There is only so much gold on the earth, only so many diamonds and rubies; in order for you to increase the amount you have, you either have to go mine them yourself or you have to get them from someone else. Getting them from someone else without compensation or their consent is called “theft”. This is obvious even to a small child; if you go into a store and take something without paying for it you have increased your property by decreasing the property of another.
Now consider an apple.
If I were to go to a store and take an apple without paying for it, I have committed theft. But what if I were to buy an apple, take it home and take out the seeds and grow an apple tree from them and produce my own apples?
Am I an ‘apple thief’ then?
You might laugh at that, but the question is not a silly one; some companies consider it “seed piracy” to do exactly that.
When you hear the RIAA speak of “theft” of music, they are not talking about people shoplifting CDs from stores, they are talking about the digital equivalent of growing your own apples from seeds. Just because copying a CD is easier and faster than growing apples, does not make it any less so.
At its core, “intellectual property” refers to ideas (aka memes and aggregations of them), be they in the form of books or music or patents or what have you…
“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others to exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it focuses itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver can not dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper [candle] at mine, receives light without darkening me.” — Thomas Jefferson, 1813
You can read more about Jefferson’s views here. The entire system of patents and copyright is based on the notion that by allowing a temporary monopoly on the application or distribution of an idea, people will be more willing to share their ideas because of the short-term profit motive; as per the Constitution:
“[The Congress shall have power] To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.“
But that has been subverted; while copyrights were originally for a period of up to 28 years, they have, especially in recent years, been increasingly extended to the point that they are now “the life of the author plus 70 years after the author’s death” (so easily well over a century). Patents may now be granted on software and even business methods. Fair use is hardly ever mentioned anymore except by those labeled “thieves” by large corporations. By accepting the notion of “Intellectual Property”, we agree that others literally own something that is in our heads.
To summarize: “Intellectual Property” is a myth; there are only government-sanctioned monopolies on the redistribution of memes. Making something in violation of a copyright or patent is not “theft” but rather a violation of a government-sanctioned monopoly. To claim otherwise, as groups like the RIAA do, is to LIE.
The copyright and patent system should be severely overhauled to establish that works made public are PUBLIC and only to benefit their creators temporarily before benefiting society as a whole.
Update Nov. 30: Readers of this article might be interested in a Linux Journal article which quotes RMS as saying “The clearest way out of the confusion is to reject the term entirely”, but which advocates a different method:
Instead of speaking of “intellectual property”, which invokes that feel-good idea of property and ownership, we should speak of “intellectual monopolies”. For this is precisely what copyrights and patents are: they are monopolies granted by governments for a limited period as part of a bargain – that, in return, those who are granted those monopolies hand them over to the public domain once the term of the monopoly has lapsed.
Update Dec. 24: There’s another interesting article, this time by David Pogue of the NY Times, “The Generational Divide in Copyright Morality” which is well worth a read; see also some of the comments its generated.
Update Jan. 24: Just a quick tidbit; I noted a user on /. by the name “I Don’t Believe in Imaginary Property” (emphasis added :)
Update March 5: An interesting article called “History suggests copyright crusade is a lost cause” argues that even if you were to treat ‘IP’ as one does physical property, “Congress’s current strategy of imposing ever more draconian penalties for breaking laws that lack broad public support is a recipe for failure. Congress may be forced to concede, as it did two centuries ago, that property law must accommodate the actions of ordinary Americans, and not the other way around.”
The meaning of property, in the laws of all nations, is a right to some corporeal subject [...] [copyright] is not property. [...] this claim [of copyright], far from being founded on property, is inconsistent with it [...] Taking it in all views, no more can be made of it than to be a privilege or monopoly [...] The act of Queen Anne bestows this monopoly upon authors for a limited time upon certain conditions. But our legislature, far from acknowledging a perpetual monopoly at common law, declares that it shall last no longer than a limited time. [...] when, upon expiration of the monopoly, the commerce of these books is laid open to all, their cheapness, from a concurrence of many editors, is singularly beneficial to the public. Attend, on the other hand, to the consequences of a perpetual monopoly. Like all other monopolies, it will unavoidably raise the price of good books beyond the reach of ordinary readers. They will be sold like so many valuable pictures. The sale will be confined to a few learned men who have money to spare, and to a few rich men who buy out of vanity as they buy a diamond or a fine coat.
Update Dec. 18, 2009: Copying is not theft.
Stealing a thing leaves one less left
Copying it makes one thing more;
that’s what copying’s for.