SOPA and 3 Ways to think about Intellectual Property

Until recently, if you started to talk about
intellectual property, most people’s eyes would glaze over and they’d try rapidly
to change the subject. Recently, however, here in the United States, we had the enormous
controversy over SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, which led to a mass movement of protest
by people who feared that their own favorite websites would be shut down. Over in Europe.
the attempts to shut down the peer-to-peer music-sharing site Pirate Bay led to the formation
of a new political movement, the Pirate Party, which actually enjoyed considerable electoral
success in both Sweden and Germany despite being a one-issue party. So what is going on here? Well, what you need
to realize is this is not actually about online piracy. What we have here is an argument about
intellectual property. And the reason why it’s a complicated argument is because there
are three quite distinct, different ways of understanding what intellectual property is. The first, in some ways the simplest, way
is to think that intellectual property is just like any other kind of property. Most
people who take this view believe that intellectual property is a natural right and that it should
be understood in the same way as other kinds of property as deriving ultimately from the
creative labor of people, such as writers, artists, and inventors. If this were true,
it would mean that every time you wanted to cite the Declaration of Independence you would
have to pay a royalty fee to the estate of Thomas Jefferson. So, in practice, most people
support the second way of thinking about intellectual property. This is that intellectual property is a special
kind of property, which is created by governments. And it has a number of features that regular
property doesn’t have. Most notably, it’s time limited. What it also does is to give
the holder of the intellectual property a monopoly right in the creative resource that
they created or purchased, and this gives them a higher income from that intellectual
resource than they otherwise would get. The reason for doing this is to create an incentive
for people to be more productive and more creative and inventive in areas like pharmaceutical
science, literature, music, the arts, and so on. The third view, which I personally hold, is
that intellectual property is both intellectually incoherent and dangerous. It’s dangerous
because in order to enforce intellectual property you have to interfere with people’s other
property rights in real physical objects and to stop them using those objects freely and
as they wish to. So you aren’t able to freely use, for example, your computer, your mp3
player, or your video recorder. It’s also, I would argue, unnecessary, in
so far as it’s quite possible to encourage and stimulate innovation and invention without
resorting to the monopoly privileges of patents and copyrights. And there indeed is some case
for saying that what patents actually do is to stop and hinder innovation in many areas. The point is that this is a complicated and
difficult argument. And it’s one which divides people from all parts of the political spectrum—and
not in the straightforward ways that you might expect. It’s division that cuts across the
normal political divides and disagreements. And what this means is that it’s going to
keep on going. And because it’s an argument with such widespread implications, we are
going to see a lot more of it in the years to come. I hope you really enjoyed this. Click on one
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