"The big content owners have been determining the world's intellectual property regimes for the last few decades.
Photo credit: Chrononaut.org
By clever lobbying at extraordinarily boring conferences, they had managed by the late 90s to commit governments, through the world trade talks, to a draconian programme of laws extending the notion of intellectual property to the point where a Norwegian teenager can be threatened with jail when he writes a clever program to let him watch DVDs on his own computer - because he is said to be providing tools to steal intellectual property.
This is madness. Ideas aren't things. They're much more valuable than that.
Intellectual property - treating some ideas as if they were in some circumstances things that can be owned and traded - is itself no more than an idea that can be copied, modified and improved.
It is this process of freely copying them and changing them that has given us the world of material abundance in which we live.
If our ideas of intellectual property are wrong, we must change them, improve them and return them to their original purpose."
"The difference between ideas and things is obvious as soon as someone hits you over the head with an idea - so obvious that until recently it was entirely clear to the law.
Things could have owners and ideas could not.
Yet this simple distinction is being changed all around us. Ideas are increasingly treated as property - as things that have owners who may decide who gets to use them and on what terms."
The landscape all around us is being changed by these laws, and while until now you may have been not noticing them, they are now intruding closer to you through the CDs you buy, the songs you download, the video clips and movies you watch, and through much of the software you use.
"Ideas such as one-click shopping, getting customer reviews on a website or even putting classified ads on the internet are now patented, which is to say that somebody owns them - Amazon.com the first two, Google, the classified ad patent - and anybody else who wants to make use of them must pay a rent to the owner.
Last week, Amazon was also granted a patent that covers getting shoppers to review the things they have bought on its website.
BT has tried to patent the hyperlink, Microsoft is trying to patent XML, a way of writing computer files that is fundamental to the operation of modern business."
You would think that in a situation where only business as an entity wins, but society as a whole looses big time at least Science would be free and immune to this suicidal strategy, but even that is not the case.
"The fight over the human genome and its patenting - and over the patenting of drugs - is another, and perhaps more familiar front in the war. Ideas are codified as intellectual property and regarded as among the most important assets a company can own.
As where things are made becomes less important in the formerly industrialized nations of the west, the real value comes in the license to allow others to make them."
But worst of all, the negative consequence of all this, is that small companies see less and less venture capital come to support their new ideas and projects. Unless the company owns patents on its ideas it has little value to the big money investors.
"US venture capitalists now refuse to back a company until it has applied for a patent on its business practice, which they will keep if it fails, as most startups must.
If this practice continues, the chilling effect for the future is obvious.
The first company into almost any field will fail. But if it leaves enough patents behind it, these may strangle all its successors.
Patenting ideas rewards failure and makes success more difficult.
You can't argue that they are needed as incentives. Bill Gates made his fortune in a world without software patents - and if that's not big enough to act as an incentive, nothing is."
But while "...there is some evidence that patenting has not slowed down research into genomes, simply because researchers ignore them..." the same can't be exactly said for software "...partly because the laws governing infringement are so drastic.
The directors and board members of any company found guilty of patent infringement are liable to triple damages, personally as well as corporately.
So companies that may infringe patents simply can't be sold until the patent holders are bought off, and this is almost always easier and cheaper than fighting the patent, no matter how worthless.
This gives the holders of patents tremendous powers of extortion. The only defence is for everybody to do it, which still further clogs up the system."
And the music industry is where most people first discover what all this fuzz about intellectual property is really about.
"There are some download services where the music you have already downloaded will no longer play if you stop your subscription.
The obvious answer is to pay for it with money similarly protected - special digital rights money, which would vanish, like fairy gold, when you stopped playing with the new toy.
Nobody would accept payment on those terms. Why are there companies which think the opposite is fair?"
Unless you represent and identify yourself with a big corporation or a large content owner (and if you do, please state your thoughts openly here - I would love to learn more about your point of you) IT IS TIME TO REALIZE that this the issue of intellectual property rights, patenting and the free sharing of ideas are just too important to you to be left to journalists and scholars to write about.
You need to start doing something about this.
I don't know whether that is in the direction of more actively supporting alternative licensing schemes like the Creative Commons, the Public Domain or in directly boycotting large patent buyers such as Microsoft, Amazon or Google.
How can individuals really open up an alternative road to what even their preferred suppliers are doing? (Many dislike Microsoft, but most love Google, and probably Amazon too).
This is a tough one, because while they (Google and Amazon) make their services and facilities more useful and open on one end, they tighten up the invisible screws of who is controlling the real engines behind it.
"When intellectual property rules diminish the supply of new ideas, they steal from all of us."
Which way out?
Read the full essay "Owning Ideas" on the Guardian.
Andrew Brown -
The boom in the intellectual property market will not reap rewards for us all
written by Andrew Brown
first published on Saturday November 19, 2005
on The Guardian
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005