IP for people who aren’t wonks

After I wrote my recent post singing the praises of “Intellectual Privilege”, my accomplice read it and informed me that she got lost rather quickly. I took some time to explain what I was talking about, and in the process, I realized that I really need to explain myself more, in general. So, if you’re new here, or if you’ve been wondering what I’m going on about, this post is here to answer these specific questions:

What is “intellectual property”? Why are you against it? Why should anyone care?

First off: What is “intellectual property”? “Intellectual property”, or “IP” for short, is actually a rather broad term, which is unfortunate, but when people talk about it, they usually refer to the big four:
1. Patents
2. Copyrights
3. Trademarks
4. Trade secrets

Patents cover practical and scientific inventions. You can patent a mechanical design, a chemical compound, a bit of genetic code…things like that. They last for a short time (usually 20 years) and you have to apply for them to get them. Note that a patent does not give you a right to use an invention, since you have that by default! No, a patent grants you the right to prevent other people from using that specific invention.
Copyrights cover expressive works, like art, literature, sculpture, and such, and also computer programs since those are technically written works. You used to have to apply for copyrights, just like patents, but ever since the Berne Covention was widely adopted, copyrights now apply automatically; if you make an artwork, you have the copyright to it. Copyrights usually last for the life of the artist, plus fifty years (or plus seventy years in some countries, like the USA). Copyrights in some types of work last for less time, but it’s a pretty long time. Like patents, copyrights consist of the right to prevent other people from using the covered information. Copyrights cover both the right to copy the work, in whole or in part, and the right to make “derivative works”. For instance, making a movie based off of a book would be making a derivative work, and under the modern rules of copyright, you can’t do so without the copyright holder’s permission.
Trademarks are marks, designs, or other identifying features that identify a business or service. They help to distinguish a business from other businesses. So you can trademark a name, or a logo, or anything that identifies your service, so long as it’s only for identifying your service (you can’t trademark a useful process, for instance). Trademarks must be registered and periodically renewed, but they can last forever as long as the owner keeps filing the paperwork. Like patents and copyrights, trademarks are the right to prevent other people from using something, in this case an identifying trait.
Trade secrets, unlike the previous three, are not publicly revealed. They are simply valuable secrets, like a secret recipe or formula, that the owner wishes to use but not disclose. You don’t have to apply for them. Unlike the previous three, trade secrets grant you no special right to prevent others from using information. They are simply the right to not disclose useful information you possess. If someone can figure out your information through honest means, such as reverse engineering, then the secret’s out and there’s nothing you can do, but if you suspect that they used dishonest means, such as spying or bribing a confidant, then you have grounds to sue for damages.

There’s a lot more to say about these things, and a few other types of “intellectual property” that I could go into, but I think this is a good introduction. Now on to the next question: Why are you against it?

First off, I am not against trade secrets. I respect people’s right to keep some things secret. I only favor forced disclosure if the secret is something people need to know. I don’t think anyone needs to know the secret formula of Coca-Cola, so I see no reason to make an exception to the normal right to keep secrets. Also, I am not entirely against trademarks. They can be used for evil, but I think they have a good reason for existing – identifying a company or service and distinguishing it from other companies or services. We need to be honest in dealings with our fellow humans, and I think trademarks can be part of that honesty. I favor fixing them over discarding them.

But then we get to patents and copyrights. These are the nasty ones, and these are what I refer to when I say “IP”. These are the ones that must go. There is nothing worth saving in them. I am against them because they consist of the right to prevent people from using useful information that they already know. They stand wholly apart from the human right of secrecy and the human need for honesty. They are all about control of other people, and they exist only when states make such evil control possible. If you want more in-depth criticism of IP, I heartily recommend this short piece by Kevin Carson, or this booklet by Stephan Kinsella. I might also recommend my own writings on the subject, but you might be better off starting with Kevin and Stephan.

And now the important question: Why should anyone care? After all, there’s plenty to worry about in the world today. There are all kinds of problems to solve, and worthy causes to support, and amusing entertainment to watch, and you still have to find time to eat and sleep and maybe have sex. Why should you devote your time and energy to dealing with this “intellectual property” stuff? Well, let me offer a few reasons.

Because IP turns you into a criminal without you knowing it. John Tehranian wrote a paper called Infringement Nation that documents all the ways in which normal people can violate copyright law, peacefully and unknowingly. Under modern IP laws, we’re all crooks, giving the state justification to stalk us, fine us, and jail us. If you don’t like being a criminal in the eyes of the law, you should oppose IP.

Because IP justifies surveillance and spying. Rick Falkvinge, founder of the first Pirate Party, has a good piece here describing the connection between the copyright monopoly and mass surveillance. You can’t control publicly available information without monitoring all information exchanged, so pro-copyright groups have continually called for more monitoring and more control, resulting in less free speech and less privacy. If you like free speech and privacy, you should oppose IP.

Because IP reduces innovation and increases cartelization. You might think that patents spur innovation and reward creativity. They don’t. You might think that copyrights spur greater artistry and creation. They don’t. Instead, patents and copyrights enable the already powerful to exert more control, preventing innovation, reducing competition and harming the consumer. If you like innovation and competition, you should oppose IP.

Because IP will only get worse if we don’t fight against it. Copyright terms keep getting longer. Patentable subject matter keeps getting broader. ‘Anti-piracy’ laws keep getting harsher. New restrictions keep being developed, like database rights. All this keeps happening in spite of the evidence that it’s bad. If you’re not affected by IP yet, you will be soon. If you want to protect the liberties you haven’t yet lost, you should oppose IP.

And there you have it. That’s what IP is, that’s why I oppose it, and that’s why you should oppose it to. Will you join us?

Edit: My accomplice read this post and suggested a few edits, such as clarifying my usage of “intellectual property” vs. “IP” (I tend to switch between the two and assume that everyone can see what I mean) and giving folks a place to go if they want to help (I added a link to the International Pirate Party, and I also recommend checking out EFF and EPIC).