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Intellectual Work as Exchangeable Property · Friday January 27, 2012 by Crosbie Fitch

It’s worryingly easy for those who recognise the iniquities of monopolies such as copyright and patent to reject the entire concept of intellectual work at the same time as they reject the monopolies, i.e. they throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As an example of this phenomenon here’s such a complaint from Bill followed by my response:

Bill January 26, 2012 at 11:17 pm
Crosbie Fitch, I disagree that the intellectual work (that is, the pattern of words) is Sheldon’s property. It is his idea, but not his “property.” The concept of “property” is indeed limited to material things that are scarce. You could call his idea “intellectual property,” but it seems to me that that would just be confusing it with actual property. And note that I don’t think this is just a semantic point. Rather, by calling his idea his “property” (intellectual property) you are implying that it has the characteristics of property. Property owners have the right to exclude others from their property. If you call Sheldon’s idea (the pattern of words in the article he writes) his property, then you false imply that you believe that he has the right to prevent others from using their property (their paper and ink or virtual equivalents) to reproduce the pattern of words that was Sheldon’s idea.

Bill, it seems that just as it is difficult for copyright supporters to understand that their monopoly is not a natural right, so it is difficult for those who have deleted the concept of intellectual work from their minds to understand that there can be such a thing as natural intellectual property.

The product we call intellectual work has precisely the same characteristics as material work save that intellectual work is far more easily decomposed into information (more easily reproduced and communicated). If, unlike copyright supporters, you don’t get too upset by the facility we have for copying intellectual work, then I don’t see why you should get at all upset at recognising intellectual work as property.

The thing I have difficulty understanding is why you can’t then resist inferring that I believe people have a right to prevent others producing anything similar to their own productions. Such a right, if it was imbued in us, would require supernatural power.

I have got a poem written on a piece of paper in my pocket and I can naturally, physically exclude you from it. You cannot read it or copy it without my permission. Now where you get mystical on me is to say that this means I believe I have the supernatural power to prevent you composing a poem that is similar to or indistinguishable from the one I have in my pocket. Of course I don’t. I have no natural power to prevent, or right to prohibit you from doing so.

Of course, once I’ve exchanged the property of my poem with you for an agreed payment you can then produce as many copies as you like – I have no natural power to prevent, or right to prohibit you from doing so.

Although authors may be enlightened to recognise the Statute of Anne as an abomination, I think it’s understandable if they sensibly refuse to recognise their writing as solely the material of the ink and paper it’s comprised of.

Nick said 2467 days ago :

Just came across this blog + look fwd to following it.

a thought: are you then implying that intellectual property is a secret (like a trade secret perhaps)? && that intellectual property ceases to be such when it is no longer a secret, which as the infamous Jefferson quote points out would seem to go against the very nature of ideas?

++ one thing the internet haz made very clear is this idea of undiscovered public knowledge. I may believe that a particular string of words (or any idea) has never been thought (or will never be thought) before, but it only takes a google search to prove me wrong.

if this is true, then is intellectual property not only a secret, but also a delusion granted by ignorance?

Crosbie Fitch said 2466 days ago :

> a thought: are you then implying that intellectual property
> is a secret (like a trade secret perhaps)?

For an intellectual work to be property it must be fixed in a physical medium (alienable), e.g. written on a piece of paper.

A secret is knowledge that is guarded against disclosure by those (few) who possess it.

An intellectual work can be secret to those who possess it, whether as knowledge within their minds or written on paper in their physical possession.

There is no momentary point at which a secret ceases to be a secret. It is the fuzzy point at which one or more of those in possession no longer guard against disclosure, and may even freely disclose and disseminate the erstwhile secret, such that those in possession can no longer be considered to number in the few.

> && that
> intellectual property ceases to be such when it is no longer
> a secret,

The nature of intellectual property is distinct from the nature of a secret.

Intellectual property shares the characteristics of material property. You can create it (through arranging raw materials), discover it, exchange it, destroy it (rearrange it), and abandon it. It is property because you have the natural power and right to physically exclude others from it. It is not property through notion or privilege, but through natural law.

> which as the infamous Jefferson quote points out
> would seem to go against the very nature of ideas?

There is no conflict between the Jefferson quote and the nature of intellectual property.

> ++ one thing the internet haz made very clear is this idea of
> undiscovered public knowledge. I may believe that a
> particular string of words (or any idea) has never been
> thought (or will never be thought) before, but it only takes
> a google search to prove me wrong.

There is indeed very little that is new under the sun.

> if this is true, then is intellectual property not only a
> secret, but also a delusion granted by ignorance?

It’s up to you whether you want to keep your ideas to yourself, and to any of your confidants and them.

If you realise an idea into physical form then it is your property, and it’s up to you whether you keep it to yourself, exchange it, or destroy it, etc.

Richard M Stallman said 2227 days ago :

If the subject under discussion is copyright, it is misleading to
refer to it as “intellectual property” because that lumps it together
with several other unrelated and disparate laws: trademarks, trade
secrets, utility patents, design patents, plant variety monopolies,
database monopolies (nonexistent in the US but existent in Europe),
controlled geographical terms (existing in many countries), publicity
rights (existing in some US states), and more.

These laws have nothing in common at the practical level, so lumping
them together is a mistake. If you want to talk about the ethics of
copyright, please call it “copyright”.

See www.gnu.org/philosop… for more about this
point.

Crosbie Fitch said 2227 days ago :

I never refer to copyright, patent, or trademark as intellectual property. It is misleading if not deceitful to do so.

They have little in common except that they are all privileges – a priori, instruments of injustice. That said, those arguing in their favour often insinuate them as natural rights, e.g. by referring to the fact that an author has a natural right to exclude others from their writings, and the fact that an individual has a natural monopoly over their identity.

There are no ethics to copyright. It is inherently unethical, a privilege borne of crown and corporate interests (the Stationers’ Company being the first publishing corporation).

I’d lump all these monopolistic privileges together as a legislative mistake, corrupt legislation to be abolished as soon as possible.



 

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