The Gulag of Intellectual Property

June 5, 2009


Intellectual property rights are supposed to ensure that the people who create content get credit for their work and that they get paid for their work. However, as this is now being applied, copyright and patent law gets in the way of learning and research, making both more difficult. Institutions spend more and more on security and less and less on real research.

Disney is a powerful company. It has greatly influenced an entire branch of the law, both in the United States and internationally. One of the main reasons why copyrights and patents have such a long life these days is because the Disney organization has been fighting hard to keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain. They want to protect their brand. This is understandable, but it has consequences for the rest of us that are seldom recognized or discussed.

Take the example of education. Back in the old days, when I was in school, academic works sometimes were copyrighted and sometimes were not. Regardless, they quickly passed into the public domain. Once in the public domain, they could be used and copied by anyone - and they frequently were, especially if they were useful for educational purposes. And this use was essentially free. The dominant doctrine of the time was that the extension of human knowledge and expertise, the needs of learners and researchers working for the good of mankind, took precedence over venal interests of ownership and property.

That is no longer true. As a direct result, the cost of student text books has skyrocketed - partly because of all the intersecting royalties paid to all kinds of content owners, but also because of all the research needed to ensure that required royalties are not overlooked. A spiral bound photocopy of various articles can easily cost $300 per copy. If doing research, either online or in a college library, the quantity and quality of research sources is continually shrinking. Educational institutions pay a subscription rate to get access to journals and publications. These subscriptions are more and more expensive every year, so universities subscribe to fewer and fewer sources.

Granted that we want to have new research firmly based upon the broadest foundation of prior research, this doesn't make sense. It penalizes researchers, especially in areas of extremely expensive sources, such as medicine. This in turn slows down the rate of change and improvement, making innovation more difficult and expensive. The private ownership of all this knowledge is like a straightjacket drawn ever tighter and tighter around research. By the time data gets into the public domain now, it is antique and often not of much value.

Then there is the matter of security. Research institutions didn't used to pay much attention to security, especially in medical research. When Salk produced his polio vaccine, he published his findings and his methods, so that anyone in the world could duplicate his work and more people could be saved from polio. He missed out on an opportunity to make a huge fortune, but that was less important to him than saving lives.

Educational institutions now spend an enormous amount of time and money on protecting their intellectual property (IP) rights. Clerks, attorneys, and researchers spend almost half their time addressing IP concerns. This leaves much less time and money for achieving the results of the research. It raises the cost of every advance in technology or basic science: not only does the advance need to be made, but then key aspects of this advance must be jealously guarded for many years after the advance is made. In order to safeguard possible future revenue opportunities, other people who could use this information to benefit the rest of us are specifically denied access to it.

As Lao Tzu said, "if you amass a store of treasures, you will be burdened by the threat of losing them." Everyone suffers under this burden of ownership. We pay more for education, have to wait longer than necessary for important scientific advances, and live in a stifling environment of fear and mistrust. We are prisoners in this property gulag where things owned are more important than people served.

We need to go back to the state of affairs where originators of ideas were fairly compensated and then the fruits of their labor and brilliance passed quickly into the public domain so that they could be used for the common good. The sum of human knowledge should be a legacy, free to all and owned by none. Like clean air and clean water, knowledge should be part of our common inalienable birth right.

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