Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property – Thomas Jefferson
The laws of many countries sanction private ownership of some
kinds of information - in the form of laws against copying
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
The resulting situation closely resembles the prohibition era, where the law
was widely treated with contempt by the population.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Anti-Copyright Resources - a nice page of links
Right To Create
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 |