Intellectual Property / Intellectual Liberty

Physical property--things like land, cars, gasoline, sandwiches, etc.--have one set of traits: They are tangible, finite, exhaustible, and require time, effort, and money to re-produce, even after the original invention/prototype has been made. Intellectual ideas--things like games, stories, software, pictures, music--have a different set of traits: They are intangible, infinitely reusable, can be easily changed and modified, and can be copied or reproduced ad infinitum at little or no cost after the original copy.

Unfortunately, in our modern society, we apply the same set of laws to both physical property and intellectual ideas. I think there was perhaps a time when patents and copyrights were needed, but they're looking more and more like the flat-earth model every day.

I also feel that the original intent of copyrights, trademarks and patents had merit, but that the current state of these IP laws do more harm than good.

In the U.S., the justification for any kind of intellectual property is spelled out in the constitution: "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries". The main objective of IP of any kind is to ultimately benefit society at large. The means to accomplishing this is to allow an author or inventor the exclusive right to an intellectual work for a limited period of time. Over time, the provision for limited exclusive rights has been greatly corrupted; rights holders are continually pressing for legislation that would extend their exclusive rights ownership perpetually. Proponents of copyright extension are often not creators either, but publishers and distributors. Moreover, it seems that we've very much lost sight of the original intent of benefiting society at large.

I believe it is possible to live in a world where ideas are not held hostage by anyone (especially valuable, beneficial ideas), and artists and inventors are rewarded for their work. For many years, humanity has had to struggle with finding a means to distribute scarce physical resources, and perhaps that's why we we chose to place similar, legal restrictions on ideas such that those ideas become artificially scarce. I say we're ready to take the next evolutionary step and unleash the economics of abundance.


"If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from any body. Accordingly, it is a fact, as far as I am informed, that England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices."

- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Isaac McPherson, August 13, 1813


"Free information leads to an increased sense of the individual. . . [F]rom the fall of Rome onward, the group with the freest information tends to win. They win because they are better able to invent, produce and economically survive any conflict."

- Elin Whitney-Smith


Salk could have taken a patent out on the polio vaccine, but he said that "would be like patenting the sun". We don't have many people with that much character these days.


www.FreePatentsOnline.com - A free patent searching site run by a an individual out there on the net. It has more data and features than the USPTO or any other free site.

Charlie Stross' Take on Copyright, Patents, et all - This article originally appeared as a letter to the editor in an issue of LWN. It is reprinted here with his permission. Charlie Stross writes articles for Computer Shopper, a UK-based computer magazine. You should also check out some of the other fine articles and essays he has written.

The Libertarian Case Against Intellectual Property Rights - Libertarians have historically been strong supporters of property rights. This essay points out that our current laws regarding IP give a person / organziation a government-supported monopoly privilege on something that isn't really property at all.

Against Software Patents - an article from the League for Programming Freedom Website that explains the hazards and follies of patenting software. It includes a historical perspective on the tenuous legal justification for software patents and recommends action that can be taken to correct the problem of software patents.

Why Free? - an article from the GNU Website that explains their justification for writing Free software; that is, software that you can share with your friends and neighbors.

The Street Performer Protocol - by John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier. This article discusses ways to compensate artists / creators in a future where copyrights are meaningless and unenforceable.

Free Software Licensing - Discusses various, "brand name" licenses that are used in most Free Software projects. Just after the introduction, this article gives an Overview of Intellectual Property that is very complete and illuminating.

Opposition to Software Patents - A collection of links to articles written by computer industry professionals opsosing the patenting of software. Includes articles by Oracle Corp. and Autodesk.

Copy Catfight or "How intellectual property laws stifle popular culture", written by Jesse Walker. This article appears in Reason Online, a Libertarian think-mag. This article discusses the growing rift between popular, vibrant, grass-roots culture that is known for circulating, borrowing, and sharing ideas, and the corporate, "ivory tower" culture that is known for hoarding their ideas and increasingly paranoid about the prospect of anyone "pirating" their content.

The Free Music Philosophy a discussion on "why music should be free" and an appeal to ameteur artists to release thier music into the public domain, thereby helping to grow the body of music that can be enjoyed and re-used (i.e. "built upon" or "derived from") to embellish the humanities and enrich our culture. Includes an FAQ.

Greed undermines benefits of digital technology Dan Gilmor of the San Jose Mercury News discusses the wonderful benefits of the digital age, and how those benefits are being undermined by people who would prefer to hoard and lock away the ideas that have made the digital age possible. Aesop once told a fable about a man who killed a goose that laid a golden egg each day, hoping that he would get "all" the gold in so doing, but just ended up with a dead goose.

Patently Absurd by James Gleik. Mr Gleik discusses some of the disturbing trends in the USPTO regarding what can be patented and the alarming rise in the number of patents that are awarded every year. He also makes the observation that the rapid, burgeoning rise of the computer/internet economy occurred due to the absence of patents, and that introducing patents into the equation now threatens to halt or even retard the progress of the information age.

Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software and the Death of Copyright by Eben Moglen. If you wrap the Internet around the world and spin the world, software flows.

BustPatents.com is a central information point for those trying to deal with the patent problem. It includes a great deal of information on how the patent process works, as well as information which can be used to fight inappropriate patents.

The Right to Read by Richard Stallman. This short story gives a dystopic view of a future where intellectual property laws are extended and enforced to the extreme.

Freedom--Or Copyright? by Richard Stallman. In the spirit of the previous article, Mr. Stallman argues against the legally-enforced use of copyright when it is taken to Draconian extremes, such as the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act). Well written, and helps illucidate some murky issues.

Union for the Public Domain - From the home page: "Union for the Public Domain (UPD) is a non-profit citizens group. Our mission is to protect and enhance the public domain in matters concerning intellectual property. This is the current steering committee . UPD is a membership organization, acting as an independent voice on intellectual property issues."

Intellectual rights may be Net casualty from the National Post. This article talks about how IP laws are easily subverted via the Internet. It also talks about why this might not be a bad thing as a virtual library of the works of humanity are made available. And besides, people will always buy papers, go to theaters, etc, but the profiteering balloon that has swelled in the modern era from the sale of recorded media is slowly being deflated.

Who's Really Being Protected? This is a dialog between Tim O'Reilly, of O'Reilly and Associates, and Q. Todd Dickinson, current director of the Patent Office. This dialog offers a revealing insight into the workings of the patent office and the character of the man who's currently in charge of it.

Courtney Love does the math An article written by Courtney Love (lead singer of "Hole", erstwhile s.o. of Curt Cobain) in which she discusses the whole ball of wax relating to music, distribution of music over the internet, who actually owns the copyrights to music you hear, and how much money artists actually make from their music (hint: a fair number of artists declare bankruptcy). I've never thought much of Courtney Love, but I gained some respect for her after reading this.

Against intellectual property by Brian Martin. From the abstract: "There is a strong case for opposing intellectual property. Among other things, it often retards innovation and exploits Third World peoples. Most of the usual arguments for intellectual property do not hold up under scrutiny. In particular, the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas provides no justification for ownership of ideas. The alternative to intellectual property is that intellectual products not be owned, as in the case of everyday language. Strategies against intellectual property include civil disobedience, promotion of non-owned information, and fostering of a more cooperative society."

Intellectual Property Is an Oxymoron found on the Motley Fool. From the abstract: "Technology is forcing us to re-evaluate the legal notion of intellectual property. The original compromise struck for the good of society has become unbalanced, and the reactions from the situation's current beneficiaries to counter this unrest have only disturbed the situation more. Copyright as it now stands has outlived its original purpose, and is no longer clearly beneficial to society as a whole. New business models must emerge, and are already emerging, to replace the old."

Software Patent Institute - This non profit organization maintians a database which contains examples of prior art for various software technologies. Their goal is to help improve the patent process.

Who owns fandom? - This article discusses how once-prolific fan sites on the web are increasingly threatened by copyright and trademark holders. It goes on to describe an ironic case where a fansite owner was threatened by a company that (guess what?) hosts fansites.

Microsoft Patents the ASF File Format - This is a news archive for a program called VirtualDub, which allows users to play video files of various formats. The author of this program, Avery Lee, had successfully reverse-engineered the file format and included support in his player. Shortly thereafter, one of Microsoft's lawyers called him up and told him that they hold a patent on the file format (not the codec, not the means of creation, but the format) and told him that he would need to remove support for ASF from his program immediately. This one is particuarly galling, so let me take a moment to spell it out a bit more.

First, here are some words from Avery Lee in his news posting regarding reverse-engineering the file format:

"This was done legally; I created my own content in both AVI and ASF form and compared the results at the byte level, without disassembling the ASF file format drivers themselves. I don't see what intellectual property Microsoft could claim in ASF, it being a universally unimaginative and poorly-designed format, but I respected their dubious claim to IP, and therefore removed ASF support at their request."

Avery Lee went on to explain that with the file format being patented, you have essentially no Fair Use rights to any file you own that is formatted as ASF. To wit:

The Baen Free Library - Baen Books is letting any of their authors put up their books, for free, online. They are putting them up at the Baen Library No strings attached, downloadable in many formats. Apparently it got started when author Eric Flint said that online piracy didn't matter to book sales. Challenged to prove this, he got Baen to build the 'Free Online Library.' His position is that it will improve the sale of his books.

The Assayer - Dovetailing with the previous item, this is a review site for readers of free books. People can contribute reviews, poste comments, etc.

I Can't Stop Thinking! - Comic artist Scott McCloud gives a comic-panel based tretiste on how comic distribution (and any content distribution, for that matter) can be streamlined and improved by cutting middlemen out of the picture.

What's Wrong With Content Protection? - This essay by John Gilmore of the EFF, explains in detail the ills and follies of content protection mechanisms when taken to their logical extremes.

In Defense of Napster and Against the Second Homesteading Rule - An article that argues against the use of copyrights and patents, making the claim that neither are pro-free-market ideals.

Turn-off This article in the New Scientist describes how some of the worst types of "Content Protection" measures are making their way from the realm of bits into the realm of atoms: Electronic apliances (such as refrigerators, microwaves, toasters, etc.) that become inoperable if they are operated in a "non-permitted" area, i.e. outside the area where they are sold.

New Yorkers for Protecting Fair Use of Copyrighted Material A local group that informs people regarding draconian intellectual property laws and advocates ways to improve the situation.

OpenMind Publishing Group and OpenText Project seek to generate textbooks from open licensed works.

Project Gutenberg is a long-running volunteer effort to bring out-of-copyright into the public domain by making them available as online "e-texts".

The On-Line Books Page

Nupedia is a volunteer effort to make a free, online encyclopedia available to the public at large.

Wikipedia is yet another volunteer effort to make a free, online encyclopedia.

Everything2 is another effort to make a free, online encyclopedia.

Opposing Copyright Extension Homepage

"No Cense" Copyright Reform Campaign

Copyright's Commons

The RIAA's 98 lobbying moneys and 2000 donations by TV/movies/music combined -- over 100% increase since the 96 presedential election.

A Call for Congress to reaffirm the Fair Use Doctrine by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA). He claims (among other things) that the DMCA has gone too far in it's content-control measures at the expense of consumers. Nice to have a lawmaker on the side of citizens and consumers for a change.

The Betamax Court Case that declared time-shifing to be a legal aspect of fair use. Another good page on the Betamax case right here.

The Home Recording Rights Coalition is an organization that seeks to protect fair use rights for home recoring.

When Works Pass Into The Public Domain a handy little chart.

Public laws owned by the public? Think again, copyright rulings show a citizen of Denison Texas posted the local laws on building codes on the internet and prompty got "cease and desist" letters. from copyright lawyers at the Southern Building Code Congress International Inc. The bill in question was copyrighted by the group before it was sent to the local legislature, so the wording of the law belongs to them. So far, two Federal courts agree with the group. If the public is unable to read the laws they are supposed to live by, how are they supposed to obey them? (And they say ignorance of the law is no excuse...)

Center For The Public Domain

DigitalConsumer.org