The Myth about Intellectual Property


Information Technology has led nearly every nation around the world to toughen intellectual property laws, but should we even have these laws? By intellectual property, I mean copyrights, patents, slogans, design rights, and other ownership of ideas or knowledge. Copyrights refer to ideas such as essays, music, and images, while patents cover inventions. Today even things found in nature such as genes may be patented. patented one-click shopping. Copyrights and patents were originally meant to foster creativity when the government grants a short-term monopoly over certain uses of that work, but it's doing the exact opposite while it has not fostered creativity in a single incident in history. An example was when in 1875 AT&T collected patents to prevent the introduction of the radio for 20 years, an invention that would have done much in history had it been released earlier. Neither did patents really protect the work of Thomas Edison. It only prevented others from creating cheaper, improved versions of that same product, as was the case when GE prevented the release of fluorescent light bulbs for decades. Thus the protection of intellectual property has only stifled creativity. Bryan Martin has suggested that instead of talking about "intellectual property", "monopoly privilege" would reveal what is really going on. Intellectual Property needs to be abolished altogether, as it has no good effects whatsoever.

Unlike a physical object like a jacket, which only one may wear, ideas can be copied endlessly and the creator of that idea still has the full use of it. If I write an article and a million others get copies and read it, I still have full use of my article, in addition to feedback and the stimulation of community discussion. I also have no right to copyright my article in the first place, since no work has ever been produced without contributions and earlier ideas by others. This definitely applies to this article, so no one including myself may ever take full credit on any work while preventing others from using words/ideas that were never completely their own in the first place.

Furthermore, there is much evidence that creativity flourishes without the hindrance of intellectual property rights. It is a known fact in science that when all scientists publish their results, that area of science develops much quicker because open ideas can be examined, challenged, modified, and improved. I believe genetic engineering could be developed much faster had the researchers not worked in secrecy.

What about the people who make a living based on the protection of intellectual property that might otherwise be plagiarized or pirated around the world, such as authors, musicians, and programmers? In fact a report was released recently saying that several billions of dollars from industry was lost due to software piracy. But what it didn't mention was that for the vast majority of that money, people wouldn't have bought their software anyway, whether because it's too expensive or the software sucked. It takes the average Chinese a year's salary to buy a copy of WindowsXP, not to mention that 90% of their salary goes to pay for life necessities. So no wonder there are entire malls in Third World countries where pirated software and DVDs are sold for a price that people can actually afford. Now if only Microsoft sold them for the same price...

Back to the question of people making a living based on intangible products, the copyrights do not protect the creator but rather their publisher who owns the copyright. So if I pirate a Microsoft product, their programmers still get the same salary while at the same time Microsoft has less income to expand their monopoly and crappy products. Two of the biggest piracy violators and therefore targets for corporations to sue are schools and libraries, as they have many computers and only buys one copy of a software to install on those computers. Getting rid of intellectual property might reduce the incomes of a few very wealthy people, such as Britney Spears or Stephen King. They would still receive a lot of money, but not as much. This would free up money to spend on other creators that otherwise would never have been known, allowing more people to contribute. Meanwhile, although Britney Spears and Stephen King would make less money, they would be even more popular since more might enjoy their creations.

People would still to willing to pay to support creators that they like. Abolishing intellectual property will increase competition and allow for the rise of new creators. The typical person will be better off when the barriers of monopoly privilege are removed.

What about the incentive to create? What would motivate creative people to produce new works without the promise of excessive amounts of money? Actually, the best works are created because of interests rather than money. There is a great deal of evidence showing that large rewards actually hurt the quality of work! But a more serious question is why create something if someone else can take credit for it? I can write an article but someone else may put their name on it, or rip entire paragraphs for a school assignment. The thing is that copyright won't protect my work at all. Almost all works are copyrighted, yet few even care (and they shouldn't). Musicians are releasing MP3s instead of modules to prevent sample-ripping. By far the most powerful deterrent to prevent this plagiarism is the condemnation by the community when it's found that the person used another's work without acknowledgement.

The idea of intellectual property is one that sounds sensible, but upon closer inspection hurts all except publishers and large corporations at the expense of society itself. The mass media speaks in favor of intellectual property for the reason that competing media stations would steal their stories (usually local news anyway). Eventually the media influences its viewers (everyone) so that few object to this tyranny. We'll need to create further discussion before it's decided whether the abolition of intellectual property can go on its own, or whether there needs to be a method to support the few (I can't think of any) creative individuals that really may depend on it. As Peer2Peer technology is becoming more widespread, the flow of ideas will no longer be restricted, so it's inevitable that we either find a new method or ban intellectual property altogether (my recommendation). Feel free to rip, extract, and plagiarize this article as you see fit.

Your comments/insights are welcome.
From Southern California, March 16th, 2002
(NŠ) Not Copyrighted 2002 by COTDT