The premise of this article is that intellectual property shouldn’t be considered a “right” in the way that it commonly is, and that the current legal arrangement of IP “rights” is not a good solution to the problems they purport to address.
I find myself drawn towards ambivalence on this. It seems both highly persuasive, and simultaneously strangely unsatisfying in a way that’s hard to pin down.
Once I dig a bit deeper, though, it seems like the part of me performing a rational assessment is the part which follows the logic of the article and agrees entirely. The part that’s reacting against it seems to be coming from a place of “this is new and unfamiliar and significantly different from the world I feel I understand, and is therefore unimaginable, impossible, and ridiculous”.
I haven’t excised the latter part from my day-to-day assessment of the world yet, not by a long shot. Which is fine. I’m aware it’s there and sometimes know to look out for it, which is a start.
It’s a difficult idea to take on, that intellectual property is simply not fit for purpose, and it’s very easy to come up with a number of instinctive, knee-jerk objections. Even while I see how much sense it makes, and how much it lines up with my ideas of what a more fair, egalitarian, just, productive, and universally beneficial society should look like, part of my mind just isn’t happy with it. And I think this has something to do with a tendency to consider things individually, rather than as part of a more general set of changes.
It might be our natural inclination, on reading about an idea like this, to imagine making just one stand-alone alteration, to the particular part of the world most familiar to us, and imagine that the result represents the full extent of any possible development in that direction. This means that numerous obvious problems spring up, and they seem all-encompassing.
“No intellectual property? How will writers and artists and musicians get paid for anything? What will motivate people to research new technologies, if everyone else will be able to profit from them? Why wouldn’t everyone just steal each other’s ideas and content and creative output willy-nilly, even more carelessly than they do now, in this modern age of torrents and pirate bays and get off my lawn you damn kids!”
But sometimes, even if making a single change in isolation wouldn’t have a great outcome, that change can be a part of something beneficial.
Kicking out the crutches from under someone with broken legs might in no way make things better – but working toward a situation where those crutches aren’t there can still be a good thing.
Or, if you tried eating flour straight out of the bag, you might conclude that you’d prefer to go hungry, but that’s not a good reason to decide that flour always makes things worse. (You clearly haven’t been eating all the breads and cakes and scones that Kirsty’s been constantly baking for me for weeks.)
So, sure. Throwing out IP but leaving the rest of our international infrastructure completely intact might not be an immediate recipe for a productivity revolution or an upsurge in everyone’s liberty and quality of life. But, just because the immediate consequences would be problematic if we did that, we shouldn’t ignore the problems that the current system creates, exacerbates, and allows to persist.
The problems with the present system should be more than enough to make us take seriously the question of whether doing things vastly differently from the status quo might not be a huge improvement. At best, the tangle of intellectual property laws we have at the moment can claim to weakly staunch some of the systemic problems arising from a monopolistic government providing constant and ubiquitous support to an equally monopolistic corpocracy.
The standard objections for why we need patents, intellectual property laws, and so forth, are always framed as if change could only ever be applied in one narrow, restricted way. They warn of legitimate problems, but act as if the best defence against them is already in place, and ignore the flaws in the system that already exists.
Oddly enough, I don’t want to see artists unable to achieve recognition for their work and starving in the streets either. I want everyone to have the time and opportunity to explore their creative interests and put their art out into the world, as much or as little as they want, in whatever medium most interests them, and gain recognition among consumers with similar interests by letting their work be experienced as widely as possible. And if that work is Harry Potter fanfic, or Star Trek slash, or a cruel parody of the novel I might eventually get around to finishing, the currently popular methods of cracking down serve to stifle far more art than they protect.
This all goes for patents on inventions, too. Patents are ostensibly offered to encourage companies to put time and resources into exploring new technologies and ideas, which wouldn’t be profitable if they couldn’t maintain some kind of proprietary rights over those ideas afterwards. But that very fact – that shared breakthroughs are considered less desirable than those which are legally prohibited to all but a single group – is already an artefact of the badly flawed way we fund research.
And perhaps if the one thing you were to change about the world was to scrap patent law, the doomsayers might have a reason to be worried. But this doesn’t mean we should be content with the present system and assume any change will be for the worse. It means that there’s much, much more that needs to change as well. Otherwise we’ll still be acting as if corporate profit margins were indicative of the benefits available to humanity.
I want to see everyone have the chance to do creative, inventive, imaginative, potentially ground-breaking work. The present system of IP law says that we’d have no motivation to do so, if we don’t drastically hobble everyone else’s ability to join in, compete, or enjoy the fruits of each other’s labour. I disagree.
Intellectual property supports a state of affairs largely antithetical to that vision. Moving past it won’t be a single sweeping change which will make everything better; it’s one of many necessary ingredients to building a world worthy of everybody in it.