Writing 09: IP

Should intellectual property be afforded the same, more, or less protections than physical property? In today’s world, do IP laws encourage or prevent innovation?

Intellectual property is, inherently, a good concept. In theory, it should provide an incentive for innovation by allowing those who have invested in innovation to make a profit off of it. In practice however, the implementation of IP rules and regulations is tricky, and can do more harm than good.

First, before anything else, we need to decide to what extent IP protections should extend to, namely in whether or not IP and physical property should receive the same treatment. From a shallow glance, the answer seems to be “yes”. After all, property is property, regardless of whether it is physical or intangible. Thus, all property should be treated the same. But there is a key difference between physical property and intellectual property. Physical property, by nature of being physical, means that only one person can own it at any time. Take a car for example. Only one person can be driving the car at any given time. Thus, it makes sense that only one person should “own” this car. Intellectual property on the other hand is more fluid, as many people could be using this same property at the same time, as we could simply make an electronic copy of it. Movies for example can be watched by hundreds of people at the same time. Even though there is only one “movie”, more than one person can enjoy it.

This makes the handling of intellectual property tricky because with physical property, if you illegally obtain the property, you had to have “stolen” it from someone which prevents that someone from using it, thus adversely harming the other person’s right to enjoy the property they own. With IP however, one can “take” from the other without hurting the other’s ability to enjoy their property. Thus, the only person at harm would be the original creator, who isn’t even a consideration with physical property. Thus, when defining IP rights, we must apply a different set of rules and considerations than with physical property.

One question then is whether we should give more or less protection to IP than to physical property, and I believe the answer is “more”. For example, IP needs protection against sharing, i.e. making a duplication of the IP for someone else to use, though the specifics are tricky because it sharing is possible even with physical property, such as taking turns using a car. Additionally, IP might need more protection because with physical property, once the maker sells it to the buyer, the buyer has complete control, but with IP, once the maker sells it, the maker often still has some stake in the sold product and so any future actions by the buyer needs to also consider the impact to the maker. In general, because IP has more considerations and its use impacts more parties, IP needs to have more protections

It is possible however to give IP too many protections, which is currently the case with patents. Current patents last a long time, relatively speaking, of about 20 years. While this was fine in the past, granting an IP a patent of 20 years in the current environment hurts innovation because of how quickly technology moves. A crucial IP needed to advance technology then could be patented and its use restricted for twenty years, thus slowing technological advancement. Additionally, longer patent periods also encourages patent trolls, as they are more likely to profit off of their “trolling”. In this way, IP patents need to expire earlier, as they are inherently technology related and technology is moving at a much faster pace now than ever before.

To conclude, I would like to briefly talk about a couple of other topics. The first is open source vs proprietary licenses, and also related “free software”. While similar in some aspects, the three are inherently different as they have different considerations. Open source for example is a collaboration, and it is tricky to assign blame when something goes wrong. Thus, those who use open source must also take sole responsibility for any problems that arise. Conversely, with free software, even if it is free the distributor can still be held responsible for bugs and potential issues as it is the distributor’s responsibility to create a good product. The same goes with proprietary licenses. Thus, no option is superior to the other, but rather users have to consider whether they are willing to pay others to not have to take responsibility for a product.

Lastly, I would like to talk about copyrighted material, particularly with regards to dvd’s and streaming. Companies should be allowed to use DRM to protect their copyrights, as companies technically own their copyrights and should be allowed to protect them. Conversely, people shouldn’t be pirating movie’s and IP, but until there are stricter laws in place nothing will change. Lastly, Netflix and Spotify are logical progressions of modern technology. Online services like these are the future, and laws need to change to accommodate this future.