A few weeks ago at Drinking Liberally someone asked me to explain my Skull & Crossbones armband so I gave my rap:
I don't believe in Intellectual Property. Intellectual Property is for Intellectuals. I am a man of action.
And I got some flack. "You don't believe in Intellectual Property?" The lawyers are incredulous. What? That's nonsense! You're an anarchist!
No. I'm a realist, and I understand the purpose of copyrights and patents.
The term "Intellectual Property" is fundimentally a mis-framing of how to understand laws that governs ideas, knowledge and information. You cannot "own" an idea in the same way you can own a thing; you can't "own" an mp3 in the same way you own a CD. Accept this and stop trying to fight reality.
Information, as far as human beings are concerned, is non-thermodynamic. There is not a fixed amount of it, as there is with matter and material items. You don't loose your idea when you transmit it to someone else, and when a new one is created it doesn't mean that some other resource is consumed.
Moreover, attempts to own or control the spread of ideas have always failed in the long run, even when massive amounts of effort are expended to do so. The British tried like the dickens to keep the US from getting the technical knowledge to build our own textile mills. More contemporarily, the nuclear powers that be are confronting the fact that it is impossible to control the spread of the know-how to make atomic weapons. Is it any wonder that the RIAA is having problems keeping the music industry locked down?
In contrast to the flawed model of "Intellectual Property," what does work with relation to ideas and information is creating a legal structure that gives innovators, artists and inventors the opportunity to have a limited monopoly (aka a patent) on their idea, or a copyright over the publication of their creations.
This suggests the model of Information Policy. That is: under what circumstances do we recognize the rights of creators and innovators to monopolize their ideas and how long do we grant them for?
These are legitimate questions. Copyright is in need of reform, as the ulgy realities of our governing process here in the US mean that whenever Mickey Mouse comes up against the limit of a copyright term, the timeframe is extended thanks to the lobbying power of Disney. Copyright now stands at the lifetime of the Author plus 70 years, 95 years if the author was working under the auspices of a corporation. That's just ridiculous.
There's a compelling public interest in having a large commons of information and content which is grist for the creative mills of the next generation. The constitutional mandate for Congress to manage copyright is as follows:
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.
Copyright exsists to promote progress. That's what Information Policy is all about. Promoting creativity and progress. That means making sure that entrepreneurs and individuals who make can turn that into a living, and even maybe get rich if they strike gold.
However, the current corporatization of our Information Policy serves to prevent competition, cement existing business models and practices, and ensure that business institutions -- which are effectively immortal -- retain a perpetual monopoly over the creativity of the people they've employed, even long after those people have died. It makes perfect sense for businesses to be able to profit from their employees in a limited context. Corporations sometimes support important research and can provide stable employment for a lot of creators, and that's cool; but life-of-author plus 95 years? That's not progress.
One of the largest current frontiers of human endeavor is all about information. It is a revolution, just like industrialization. In this context, it's imperative that we start thinking seriously about what kind of 21st Century we want to have, culturally, economically, and politically. Information Policy is deeply tied to all these questions, and it's high time that the next generation made its voice heard.