Legalise IT

Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property Thomas Jefferson

Current laws

The laws of many countries sanction private ownership of some kinds of information - in the form of laws against copying information.

Other laws prevent certain types of use of information - in the form of laws restricting inventors, laws restricting the use of certain words for marketing purposes, and laws against counterfitting, impersonation and the use of cryptography.

These laws are all destructive and harmful, and need to be taken off the books.

The government should legalise Information Technology.

The underlying issue

The fundamental issue is whether individual agents should be permitted to own and control patterns of information.

Information ownership

Promoters of the idea that information should be owned claim that substantial progress has been caused by the finincial incentives offered to information creators by laws promoting such ownership.

They claim much literature and artistic work owes its existence to the government-granted monopolies given to their creators.

They also claim that many useful inventions owe their existence to financial incentives provided to the inventors by the government-granted monopolies awarded to them.

What can be owned

Some types of information cannot be owned, even under existing law. Mathematical ideas cannot be owned. Plot lines of fictional works cannot be owned.

Other things can currently be owned - under existing laws. Among them are physical objects, money, literary works and inventions.

Adverse effects

On the negative side, the laws criminalise the manipulation of information. Whenever anyone copies anything they have to check its ownership, and then possibly apply for a license - or abort their copy operation.

It becomes possible to break the law in your basement, if you have a network connection there. Since communications can be obfuscated, in order to detect such unlawful activities, the government needs to gain entrance to your property, install surveillance cameras, and monitor your daily activtiy.

Similarly inventors need to perform lengthy patent searches whenever they come up with an idea. Worse, patent ideas are often deliberately disguised by legal jargon - since the fewer people who actually find your inveantion, the more money there is to be made suing them. This, and the sheer number of existing patents makes it difficult to find things in the patent database.

Other effects

Laws restricting the use of information change the economic landscape.

For one thing they create jobs for armies of lawyers, eager to get rich off the efforts of the world's technologists.

The laws exist because it was historially believed that their net effect in distorting the landscape was actually beneficial.

Copyright and patent law provide emergency shelter to creations that, but for such special statutory protection, would have been left wandering unprotected through the market economy - and would have probably perished in the process.

They have almost certainly resulted in lots of literature, music and movies being produced, which would otherwise not have found funding without government sponsorship.

However, it remains highly questionable whether much of this activity is actually beneficial.

The fact that people are prepared to pay for some of the resulting products proves nothing - people pay for all kinds of drugs and addictions that are bad for their health, and that of the community in which they live.

What would happen under an alternative system - where literature, music and films are paid for out of public taxes, and made publicly available?

Would we still see 300 million dollars spent on Spiderman 3?

I believe not - a utilitarian analysis would conclude that expenditure on mere entertainment on such a scale was a frivolous waste of public funds - and that projects such as irrigation, agriculture, shelter and development should take priority.

To some observers, the scale of the literature, music and movie industry represents a damning indictment of the existing laws. It appears that much of the resulting material is worthless garbage funded by idiots. Who put these people in charge of the country's national budget? The answer seems to be that the people who came up with the copyright laws did.

I expand on this theme in another essay, entitled Destroy the Entertainment Industry.

Contempt for the law

Widespread use of digital computers and the rise of the internet has made copying information quicker and easier than ever before.

As a direct consequence, the laws on intellectual property have been violated on a mass scale - by consumers who want their MP3s.

Prohibition

The resulting situation closely resembles the prohibition era, where the law was widely treated with contempt by the population.

Political reform

Having laws which are so regularly violated on the books is a sign that something is wrong.

Intellectual property owners represent a powerful minority, eager to continue their exploitation of the masses, and can afford to contribute to political campaigns and lobby groups that promise to protect their interests.

Individual consumers are far more numerous. Paying monopoly prices is inconvenient for them - but it usually doesn't threaten their entire vocation. Plus in the case of copyright, they can simply break the law.

In democratic nations, no doubt politicians will come to recognise that the majority of voters do not like being branded as criminals. However, companies with intellectual monopolies and patent portfolios will probably lobby for patent protection.

Ultimately, the mess with patents and copyrights is a symptom of a broken political system. If the government really ran the country properly - and funded the creative arts and innovation for the benefits of the population - then the issue of protection for patents and copyright holders would not exist. Also, there would be much less crap produced in the arts - and a lot fewer inventions involving people exploiting their fellow citizens.

Progress and ownership

Progress in mathematics still seems to take place despite the fact that mathematical discoveries cannot be patented.

Many inventions took place before the patent laws were on the books.

Patents can have substantial negative effects on inventors as well as positive ones - e.g.:

Of the 40% of respondents who reported their work had been affected [by patents], 58% said their work was delayed, 50% reported they had to change the research, and 28% reported abandoning their research project. The most common reason respondents reported having to change or abandon their research project was that the acquisition of the necessary technologies involved overly complex licensing negotiations.

- http://righttocreate.blogspot.com/2005/11/patents-chilling-science.html

The case in favour of the patent system is worsening as time passes - as more and more inventors are born, as the rate of progress increases, and as more of the world gets on the internet.

Acceleration

One thing that has become evident is that the pace of technological change seems to be accelerating. The phrase ' internet time' is one way of expressing of this.

Accelerating change should logically result in decreased patent and copyright terms - if these are measured in years.

Such a change has yet to happen - despite increasing protests against the laws involved.

Number of people

Globalisation and international conventions increase the number of people who can be exploited by intellectual property laws, increasing the returns that accrue to information controllers.

Simultaneously, a larger number of people means a greater number of potential inventors, reducing the chance that an invention by one individual will remain undiscovered by others for very long.

A look at the history of technology shows many cases of near simultaneous invention. Inventions often happen because their time is ripe.

Synergy

The existing roadblocks on the information superhighway are damaging in part because they prevent synergy from taking place.

The situation is closely analogous to how the road system used to be when it was privately owned - and was covered by toll booths.

In my opinion, the government needs to wake up and sort out the information highway system - and turn it into a place where you can move around in an unrestricted fashion, without being constantly hassled by the information landowners.

Links

Anti-Copyright Resources - a nice page of links

Question copyright

Right To Create

Libertarian Nation

Against Intellectual Monopoly - by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine

praxeology.net (Roderick T. Long)

Patents Are An Economic Absurdity

Software patent debate - wikipedia

End software patents - FSF

Software patent - wikipedia


Tim Tyler | Contact | http://timtyler.org/