18 thoughts on “Yet another reason we would be better off without intellectual property

  1. I have no brief for the Institute of Public Affairs, whom I regard basically as a bunch of Arfur Daleys without the charm or patriotism; but I fail to see – on the basis of what is after all an article about cigarette packets – why intellectual property is intrinsically invalid (and yes, I have read the standard attempts by the likes of Larry Lessig to attack IP). Scrap IP as such, and you open the door to wholesale plagiarising and amateur-hour authorial incompetence, a point made by Mark Helprin in his flawed but important book Digital Barbarism.

  2. If intellectual property rights didn’t exist businesses would still make money. They would still create new goods, new products for consumption. However, there could conceivably be some shrinkage on the fringes where the biggest risks are taken, but then again perhaps not.

    On the whole I doubt it would damage the big IP hoarders much at all. The recipe for Coke (the softdrink!) was held as a trade secret for many years rather than risk a patent and copy cats. So that is one way in which IP may be protected, if it is so important to the business. Really though, removing IPR would just shift the ground for all businesses, while creating an expanded public knowledge base for innovators to use as inputs for new ideas.

  3. “I fail to see why intellectual property is intrinsically invalid”

    Because it’s not really property. It’s monopoly rights.

  4. @robert (not from UK)

    Intellectual property rights are hardly needed to prevent plagiarism. It seems you are confusing two separate issues, plagiarism and copyright or IP. Plagiarism refers to passing off someone else’s work as one’s own. Intellectual property involves cases where one allegedly profits unfairly in dealing with the ideas or works of another without necessarily passing another’s work off as one’s own. If I reproduce a book in its entirety, but acknowledge the source and don’t pass it off as my own work, I may be guilty of copyright infringement but not plagiarism.

    Institutions like universities could still have strict rules on plagiarism without IP laws. And the best disincentive for plagiarism is to be publicly ridiculed and discredited. This penalty is not dependent on IP.

  5. I’m no expert on IP, but the subject covers a big area including patents, copyright, plant breeders rights and various other stuff like trademarks. Each area really deserves separate treatment. It’s pretty clear that patents are a big mess and software patents and patents on business processes are amongst the worst of it.

    Software patents do not even pass the smell test: http://webshop.ffii.org/webshop.png

    A little more rigorously: http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/software/software-patents-dont-compute makes the very important point that there is no clear distinction between a patented algorithm and mathematics and software patenting has resulted in a stealth patenting of mathematics. Traditionally, mathematics is not patentable and indeed should never be patentable.

    As for the Institute of Public Affairs a more accurate description may be “a gormless bunch of Arfur Daleys without the charm or patriotism”.

  6. One of the notable features of intellectual property is that originally it was designed with the intent of encouraging people to produce more material, by offering the prospect of extra economic rents for a given period of time. Yet it has grown to have exactly the opposite effect. Excessively restrictive copyright laws are actually stifling innovation and the production of new material.

    When Men at Work are taken to court and ordered to pay damages for a flute riff in a song that only lasts a few seconds and vaguely mimics another tune, you know that IP rights have gone mad and become nothing more than a rent-seeker’s paradise. It is tempting to conclude that we would be better off if IP was abolished.

  7. I do not know that we would better off abolishing IP outright. As with many things, returning IP to its traditional limits and purposes would be a better option. Lessig does not attack IP as such. He does criticise the recent massive expansion of IP so that copyrights now have longer terms than ever before and the reach of IP generally is constantly being extended to new areas.

  8. @Monkey’s Uncle
    I agree with you concerning the MaW song. It was meant to be evocative, not derivative. Madness gone insane.

    When it comes to patented items I see little real benefit – it is a game for the big boys in town and a slaughterhouse for everyone else. It isn’t often that a minnow wins bigtime in a patent dispute against the big boys. The lawyers, on the other hand, win every time.

  9. I think Quokka’s right that the different forms of IP deserve different treatment. What the IPA’s have to say – either one – should be seen as the shilling for sectional interests that it is.
    Big Tobacco is lucky not to be facing total ban of their addictive and carcinogenic products although groups like the IPA’s no doubt have prevention of that as part of their brief. I find myself less concerned for copyrights and trademarks than patents although I don’t want to see creators denied opportunity to profit from their work; I just think that patents have a more important role for our future.

    Of all the IP’s patents are the ones that I think reform would have the widest benefits. I suspect that many a beneficial invention has failed in it’s potential because patent law allows monopoly rights and the holders of those rights has failed – for a variety of reasons – to follow it through. Or allow others to follow it through. I had thought the idea was that an idea could be used and improved upon by others – with royalties paid for that privilege; what seems to happen is patents are used to prevent use and improvement by others. Given the challenges humanity faces we can’t afford to have crucial technologies that could provide great benefit fail to be developed or implemented. Imagine, for example, a vastly superior energy storage technology in the hands of those who feel their current interests are better served by continuing their profitable core business without it’s complications and, more crucially, feel it’s in the interest of that core business to prevent others from having it. Maybe shorter time limitations on monopoly rights whilst retaining longer term rights to royalties?

  10. @Ken Fabos

    I think, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that a patent holder must

    1. Disclose the subject and contents of the patent (done during patent application)

    2. Grant rights to the use of a patent for “reasonable” royalties

    In principle, a patent holder can’t lock up the use of a patented invention by others. If that was the aim it would be better to keep it secret. What happens in practice may not always be
    so neat.

    This is not to say all is well with the patent system and in particular patents are granted on squillions of things that they shouldn’t be. This in itself can be a big drag on innovation.

  11. Excessively restrictive copyright laws are actually stifling innovation and the production of new material.

    Whatever your opinion of the Men at Work lawsuit, where’s the evidence that this claim is true? There was no shortage of new copyright material being produced last time I checked, in music, literature, film or any other relevant area.

  12. Ken Fabos writes the following: “I don’t want to see creators denied opportunity to profit from their work.”

    No more do I. Unfortunately a lot of anti-IP people do indeed want to see just that, as the Mark Helprin book which I mentioned before makes clear by quoting instance after instance. They want – in a sort of frenzy which is really neo-Marxist, although they would never admit as much – to abolish the very concept of the professional artist who (quelle horreur!) actually makes a living out of his or her creations.

    And it’s all very well for certain anti-IP types to say that in principle, opposing IP need not mean defending artistic plagiarism. But in practice the two mindsets seem to go together (again, Helprin supplies chapter and verse for this).

    Monkey’s Uncle says that ” the best disincentive for plagiarism is to be publicly ridiculed and discredited.” These days, most if not all unversities have penalties for plagiarism in place, with a certain amount of ridicule and discredit accruing to those who incur such penalties. But I don’t see any evidence that plagiarism has actually declined as a consequence, and I see a fair amount of evidence that it is as bad a problem as it ever was.

  13. Quokka, I could be wrong about patents specifically allowing monopoly rights although in practice I think it would be easy to difficult in negotiating licenses for others – effectively make it impossible for others to use. My concerns that patents can be bought up and innovation stifled may be a bit paranoid but shortsightedness, bad management and unwillingness to adequately invest in follow up development could see us miss out on technological solutions to serious problems. And I suppose something like my hypothetical superior batteries could risk becoming a military secret and denied to civilian use on the basis of strategic importance.

  14. I’m with Robert (nfUK) on this one. Every aspect of law is misused in the hands of beligerent and deviant organisations protecting their cash interests. That does not mean that the legal system should be abandoned.

  15. Monkey’s Uncle suggests that

    Institutions like universities could still have strict rules on plagiarism without IP laws. And the best disincentive for plagiarism is to be publicly ridiculed and discredited.

    My italics.

    Unfortunately there is not enough mocking – ridicule is a good start but we need more mocking 😛

  16. Of course there has to be some IP, to prevent free-riders, but not to the extent we see today which creates monopoly profits and distorts the entire economy.

    The “reasonable royalties” is a fig-leaf, as there is no real mechanism for this.

    I understand that BP Solar has purchased many solar patents and IP, and is allowing them out in the market but only in a manner to protect BP’s corporate interests.

    Surely IP and patents should be much more time limited. If you cannot recover your costs in 10 years, then whatever you have developed is unlikely to have much economic value.

    For example; why should there be any royalties on Beatles music – when these don’t even belong to the actual producers of Beatles music. All the Beatles and their families look well fed and well housed, and I am sure they recovered all their costs.

    It seems to me that after a decade or so, that IP and patents, damage economic opportunities and further innovation by the greatest number. In the case of medicines this can be extraordinarily unjust.

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