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On what I think about Intellectual Property

This may easily be the most difficult post I've written. For once, I cannot take recourse to the meta-element, or to meaningless digressions, but I need to stick to what I think, hard facts and personal opinions. So here goes...

What exactly is intellectual property? Ideas? Seems so, in the most general sense. Of course, lawyers would have their own definition, but who here speaks gobbledygook lawyer-speak? So, if you have an idea, is it your intellectual property? Or do you have to state an assertion towards your ownership? Or, for that matter, can an idea be owned?

Let's say I have an apple and you have an apple. I give you my apple and you give me yours. We both have an apple each, still. Now, let's say I have an idea and you have an idea. I give you my idea and you give me yours. Now, we both have two ideas each. And that is the fundamental issue with intellectual property.

Unlike other forms of property, intellectual property does not terminate its ownership. It has the most useful property of staying associated with memory for as long as we please. Moreover, it can transfer in the most subtle of ways, by casual exchange, conversation; and as it does not leave either of the parties concerned, the one originally Owning the property does not miss it. Until the second party starts using it.

Have you begun to understand some of the issues with intellectual property? It is just so easy to get confused upon matters of ownership here. If I come up with a great idea, which has a great potential to be a commercial success, how do I prevent you from using that idea for your own gain. Of course, the question remains, is it morally right for me or you to do what we did?

The law tries to safeguard innovation using patents and copyrights. It does so with the best of intentions, that the person who has come up with a unique idea can reap the benefits of that idea, that he is rewarded for the efforts that go into coming up with that idea. Hence, the law provides a certain amount of time for which the person who has claimed a patent or a copyright can exclusively use his idea, after which the idea opens up for competition. However, notice that I'm using the word idea and not product. This is because I can patent just an idea, and not necessarily a complete product. Like self-lacing shoes. Or the latest and greatest UI designs. Or some concept in software.

At the same time, the law allows a person to sue, for infringement, any competitor whom the person thinks is trying to steal the idea. Not that I believe that ideas can be stolen, but my views shall come in at a later point. So, this gives a powerful motivation for companies to monitor the products of other companies, and to hire large legal teams to intimidate others. And this is a problem.

The justice system hardly is fair. It was not fair when Nelly Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, it was not fair when Edwin Armstrong walked out of his 13th storey apartment onto the pavement below. Yes, the same Edwin Armstrong who gave us the FM radio. Unfortunately, FM was involved in a nasty legal tangle that drained its inventor of all hope, and forced him to take this extreme step. And the justice system is not fair today. You see, the justice system is a long winded process, which can take many years to deliver, in the process requiring expensive lawyers. Most of the small fry, who actually drive innovation, cannot afford the expenses, and hence throw in the towel.

Personally, I think that it is good to protect innovation. It provides a strong motivation for innovating. However, I'm against the current system, which rather than being a defensive shield, has been changed to a sword used to attack and suppress innovation. A phone-selling hipster wanted to use every last penny in his company's account to destroy the competition. I think he succeeded in forcing many of his competitors into paying him for each phone they sold. This means that I'll be afraid to come up with anything new, because I fear the lawsuits associated with innovation. For example, Jesse Jordan, a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York simply fixed a bug on an intranet file sharing service. He was presented with a lawsuit that accused him of facilitating piracy, as the RIAA claimed that over 25% of the files shared over the university's intranet were music files. Effectively, he was given two options, an out of court settlement which would leave him bankrupt, or an expensive legal tussle, after which he would probably win, though all he would have at the end of it would be a piece of paper informing him that he was innocent, and another telling him that his family was bankrupt. He went in for the out of court settlement, that took away all the $ 12,000 that he had saved over the years. The other option would have cost $ 250,000.

Then there is the case of software. Can software be sold? If so, what control do I have over it? Surprisingly, most of you out there must have never purchased software. When you go out there and pay big bucks to get the latest Windows, you are actually just paying for a license to run the software on your computer. You have no rights over that software, and you do not own it. If you have any issues with the software, you cannot fix those issues, you need to contact the manufacturer, and they may or may not fix that issue. Seems rather bad to pay over $ 100 for this, right?

Yet, I have put in that money, and so must all of you. The alternative, free software, free as in free speech and not free beer, is still immature compared to proprietary software that we are all used to. Maybe because the free software industry actually does not have much motivation to develop alternatives. Yet, a surprisingly large part of software should be sold, and not licensed, just because it is so specific in application. You see, most of the software in the world is custom made, or made to order for a certain task. I am not aware of whether it is licensed or sold. I think it should be sold, and not licensed, mainly because the requirements of a custom software can change, and the people using it should be capable of changing the software as per their wish, employing whoever they want to do the job.

Yet, the other side of copyrights is the copylefts. This is made famous with GNU, with the GPL version whatever, and Richard Stallman. Stallman believes that all forms of copyrights are universally bad, and he may have a point. Take the example of linked lists. Taught in high school now, linked lists are one of the most common data structures. Yet, as recent as a few months ago, someone patented a version of linked lists, which makes them inaccessible for all other programmers. And since the amount of code in the world is so large, with millions of programmers out there, such a software patent can easily bring the entire industry to a grinding halt. Have a look at http://www.google.com/patents/?vid=Szh4AAAAEBAJ.

At the same time, I would like to assert my claim over my ideas, yet allow you to use them as long as you don't do so for any wrong reasons. And that is why I like the Creative Commons license. In fact, I do an injustice by treating CC as one license. In fact, CC is a whole bunch of licenses, and you can easily choose one based on your requirements. I use a CC-BY-NC-SA, which means that you are free to use all the material on this blog, as long is you attribute it to me/this blog, use it for non-commercial purposes, and that you share derivatives under the same license. A nice easy way to make my work accessible to the world. (That no one cares about my blog is a different matter altogether.)

The power of CC is unbelievable, though most people do not recognize it's potential. Trey Ratcliff is one photographer who has recognized the potential of CC, and has used it to great benefit for his photography, even though the entire community initially called him crazy for doing so. The whole world restricts all rights, that is the paranoia, why bother to change it when the paranoia is not harming anyone. Give some freedom, and people will misuse it, they say. But that is not the case. CC can easily allow you to license work to those who could not afford it earlier, and who do not stand to gain much from your work anyway. At the same time, if someone wants to benefit from your work, you are free to work out any other licensing agreement. With a BY, i.e. an attribution license (in CC), you can ensure that if anyone uses your work, he has to attribute it to you. Can you not see how this increases outreach drastically? This is what Trey recognized, and all images on his blog are CC licensed.

Moreover, allowing freedom to create derivatives of your work and distribute them can also benefit your work. In Japan, the doujinshi actually help the manga circulation increase.

Then again, there is the point about ethics. Most of the life-saving drugs out on the market are expensive only because there are patents that grant a monopoly in their creation. A lot of money goes into RnD, and the pharmaceutical companies want to milk these drugs for all their worth. This is the reason millions of people in the poor countries die annually, because they cannot afford these expensive drugs.

The point I wish to make is that it may be beneficial for us to actually consider moving away from copyrights and patents. I don't support copyleft completely, though. All I'm saying is that it may be wise to stop guarding our ideas with so much of zeal, and actually redirect efforts into innovating further. We don't stand on the shoulders of giants much any more. Instead, we stand on the shoulders of millions of fellow human beings. Let's start standing with them.



A lot of the material on this post and in my views on intellectual property has been inspired by the book Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig. Please visit http://www.free-culture.cc/. I probably would not have been able to share these views if it were not for the CC license that Lessig placed on his work. Do consider using a CC license.

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