Intellectual Property Myths

Intellectual property is a hot-button issue these days, and for good reason. In the heat of debate, however, it can become easy for dogmatic assertions to stamp out complex truths. In order to fairly consider intellectual property, it is important that our discussions not be clouded by misconceptions; for this reason, a number of false statements about intellectual property are here listed and rebutted.

Intellectual property is an ancient principle.

Not true. Intellectual property is an explicitly modern notion, having made its debut quite recently. The first patent law was enacted in 1623, and the precursor of modern copyright—the Statute of Anne—came into being in 1710. These early laws were limited in scope and restricted to only a few types of information; the broader interperatation of these principles used today in the western world is quite modern, certain elements having been added only within the last few years.

Intellectual property is recognized worldwide.

As the US's recent standoff with China demonstrates, intellectual property is not a concept which has worldwide acceptance. Indeed, a major foreign policy objective of the United States has been to force other nations to comply with its own intellectual property agenda—an unwelcome form of intellectual imperialism which is all too frequently ignored by watchdog groups.

Without intellectual property, no one will produce original work.

Given that intellectual property law made its debut in 1623, we may correctly consider any work produced before this time to dispell the myth. Man created for millenia before the advent of intellectual property; he will create for many more millenia after it is abandoned.

Intellectual property is necessary to create incentives for the production of original works.

This intellectual property myth has become the mantra of IP supporters. Often repeated, never questioned, the idea that creativity depends on a government granted monopoly needs no justification in the minds of most IP boosters. Sadly, however, they are mistaken: intellectual property "rights" are not essential to creation, and in some circumstances even deter it.

Consider, for instance, the software industry. Free for years from the limitations of intellectual property, the industry flourished, becoming by all accounts one of the most creative of environments in the modern world. With the recent introduction of patent law into computing, however, many individual programmers live in fear of lawsuits from large corporations who claim "ownership" of techniques such as the scroll-buffer. Who benefits from this? Certainly not the creator! Intellectual property law, from its inception, has been about publishers and other powerful firms as much as it has been about creative individuals; the latter often find their interests poorly defended by IP.

Even if people did create works without intellectual property protections, the quality of these works would be substandard.

Only if "Julius Caesar", Plutarch's "Lives", "The Last Supper", and Handel's "Messiah" are "substandard"! All of these, including such pivotal creations as the Bible, the Koran, and the hundreds of Sutras were created in a world without intellectual property. IP boosters claim that weakening intellectual property law means giving up great literature, music, and art; in fact, history shows us that this is not the case.

The "best" creators won't work without intellectual property protections.

Once again, history proves this to be false. Shakespeare, Plato, Confucius, Hero, Chaucer, Handel, and many others of the finest names in world literature, music, art, and invention worked in an environment free of intellectual property restrictions. Clearly, genius does not require copyright to produce!

To take away intellectual property rights is to deny creators the right to profit from their labors.

This myth is based on the idea that the only way to make money off of creation is to "sell" the ideas which are produced. In fact, this is not true. Consulting, support, performance, service: these are all ways in which creators can make money off of their abilities without appealing to intellectual property rights. Even if there were no copyright, a band could still make money by charging for live performances, for instance; an even better example is found in academia, where a great deal of idea production takes place without the ideas being "sold" to the universities which sponsor their creators. Removing intellectual property rights would not deny creators the right to profit from their labors; it would, however, allow all of society to share in the benefits of their work.

Intellectual property follows directly from the notion of physical property.

Physical property rights are derived from the basic fact that a physical object can't be in two places at once. In order to keep people from squabbling over material objects, we use a system of rights to say "who gets what". Information, however, differs from physical property in a number of ways, one of which being that it can be in many places at the same time. Let's say that Fred gives Barney an apple; after this, Fred no longer has the apple. If, on the other hand, Fred tells Barney about the apple, Fred still knows about the apple. Fred gave the information to Barney, but Fred still has it! Clearly, then, there is no need for Fred and Barney to squabble over who "owns" the information about the apple: to do such would be to try to treat information like an object, an idea which is clearly flawed.

As the debate of over the future of intellectual property unfolds, it will be more important than ever for participants, and bystanders, to have good information concerning the nature of IP. By removing the myths and misconceptions which surround intellectual property, we can make better decisions as to its proper status in our society.

This document should be considered public domain—please distribute freely.

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