Property rights in a new age
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #11

Intellectual property was one of the major points of argument at the recently concluded Uruguay round of the GATT. Certainly, what makes this the information age is the increasing importance of knowledge as a commodity: the dominance of intellectual over conventional property in the economic calculations of both government and business. But information commodities (and by this I mean all forms of intellectual property, from a work of art based on someone's particular expertise, to a process of manufacturing based on someone's unique knowledge) are very different from industrial or agricultural commodities such as land or refrigerators. While intellectual property, as the basis for a new economic mode, cannot be ignored and must be protected, it cannot be treated as other forms of property are today. Being different in nature, it must differ also in its protection.

Information is unusual as a commodity in several respects. These include the ease of duplication and distribution; the loss of income rather than of the commodity itself; the possibility of spontaneous recreation; and the difficulty faced by any attempt at enforcement.

What makes intellectual property so unique is that it is childishly simple to duplicate. This is a tremendous advantage -- imagine everyone using the same car or plot of land. On the other hand, this makes it difficult for the owners of property to restrict access to it: as a cybersage said, information wants to be free. As there's no reason why knowledge should not be shared with the whole world, as long as its owners receive compensation, the system of patents exists to encourage inventors to share their creations, while ensuring returns through royalties. If something is patented, it is no longer undisclosed and may be used by anyone; if something is kept a trade secret it is less likely to be taken advantage of, though the inventor has no protection whatsoever against a leak or independent discovery.

This ease of duplication leads to another issue, theft. If I take away your car, you no longer have it. If I copy (or steal) some of your intellectual property, however, you haven't lost it. Of course, I have gained something, I now have something I did not earlier, and am presumably better off due to your efforts. And it's not as if you don't lose anything; you lose any advantage you had over competitors due to your information; you also lose any income you might have got out of it, from me, and anyone I choose to sell it to. While it is obvious that the creator of information has some rights, it is not as obvious that these rights may be transferable to those who then merely own property. But the creator may not want to take on the bother of distribution, collection of dues, and all the problems involved with marketing a product. It should be possible for a creator to sell the ownership of information.

Intellectual property can not only be distributed; it can be recreated. As the recent spate of 'look-and-feel' lawsuits in the US (Apple versus Microsoft, Lotus versus Borland) shows, there has to be a balance between the rights of owners of extant products and those of the creators of future ones. Many recent US patents, particularly in the fields of software and biotechnology, are dangerously close to protecting not inventions but abstract ideas. Though most such 'concept patents' are not respected outside the US, they do tend to restrict research in those areas.

Finally, the enforcement of any rights is quite impossible unless society in general accepts them. Without an understanding of the information economy, we may be entering a new era without any code of ethics to face it.

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