Copyrights and Wrongs
In case you missed it, April 23 was World Book and Copyright Day. UNESCO sponsored events in some 30 countries to promote "reading, publishing and the protection of intellectual property through copyright."
Intellectual property is indeed a big issue these days. There's a vibrant trade in pirated CDs and DVDs, counterfeit handbags and watches, and all manner of bootlegged digital files at swap meets in Dakar and in the vendor stalls of Hong Kong, not to mention along Canal Street in New York City and in dens and bedrooms across America. Intellectual property matters also figure prominently in trade relations between the United States and the developing world, especially China.
The intellectual property debate typically divides into two camps -- those who defend the rights of ownership and those who defend free speech. The first is championed in a recent book by Pat Choate, Hot Property: The Stealing of Ideas in an Age of Globalization (Knopf). The second is represented by Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity (Doubleday), by Kembrew McLeod
For Choate, an economist and Ross Perot's 1996 vice presidential running mate, intellectual property is about more than simply discouraging CD ripping, purse parties and peer-to-peer file sharing; it's about protecting the American way of life. Developing countries like China violate intellectual property regulations to gain unfair advantage, Choate charges, and it's costing America an estimated $200 billion a year. Not only that, counterfeit medicines and machine parts are making their way into the United States, threatening the safety of everyone. The answer is to secure intellectual property by any means necessary, including using front groups like UNESCO and the World Trade Organization to uphold the rights of owners and punish those who break the rules.
Yet intellectual property abuse has long been part of the American economy. In 1810, Francis Cabot Lowell stole the idea of the power loom from England and patented it in America, which at the time only recognized the intellectual property rights of citizens. This act of piracy gave birth to the American textile industry. A hundred years later, Henry Ford sold Model Ts even though the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers claimed violation of the Selden Patent. His crime made personal motor transportation affordable where it was previously a luxury. But now total intellectual property enforcement helps America dominate the global marketplace.
Intellectual property provisions are contained in the U.S. Constitution to encourage new ideas and reward those who create them, with the ultimate goal of furthering the interests of society. That it currently has the opposite effect is Kembrew McLeod's contention.
McLeod is a professor of communications studies at University of Iowa and a music critic for Rolling Stone, Spin and the Village Voice, among others. In 1998, he officially trademarked the words "freedom of expression" to point out the absurd state of intellectual property regulation. While this and the other high-jinks he reports on are amusing, McLeod's intentions are serious -- corporations are putting up fences against the free exchange of ideas to line their own pockets and everyone else suffers for it.
For one thing, the prevailing intellectual property climate impedes scientific progress. It's more difficult and expensive, for example, to do research on inherited diseases because of gene patents. Nor is the common good served when information about the safety and effectiveness of prescription drugs gets withheld under the cloak of "trade secrets." It often doesn't even make economic sense -- statistics McLeod cites from the Pew Internet and American Life Project show a positive correlation between MP3 file sharing and the rise in CD sales over the past few years, even as the record industry has waged jihad on suburban teenagers for copyright infringement.
While keeping the creative commons open for free expression is important, it isn't enough. The English Land Enclosure Movement of the early mercantile era wasn't about curtailing free speech, but about separating peasants from the traditional means of their livelihood and forcing them into sweatshops, creating both a new source of private wealth and a ready supply of wage labor. By the same token, the new intellectual property regime of the information economy wants to capture the very thoughts of workers, only to sell them back in pay-per-view. So from Palo Alto to Bangalore, hackers of the world, unite!