Unleashing creativity

The Occupied Times, No. 19, 27 December 2012 (go to Occupied Times version); printed version: January 2013, p. 9

Brian Martin

Scientific research is a dynamic system for creating new ideas. Researchers develop ideas, test them and publish the results, allowing others to build on them. Now imagine that scientists could claim ownership to formulas, such as E=mc2, requiring future researchers to pay royalties to use them. This would put a serious dampener on research. Scientists would always be worried about being sued for using someone else's formulas.

Luckily for researchers, scientific formulas cannot be copyrighted or patented. But science is an exception. In many fields, creativity is being stifled due to so-called intellectual property - which is better described as monopoly restraint.

Consider copyright, in some ways the worst of all the restrictions on creativity. It is too easy to acquire and too long-lasting. As soon as you write a few words, they are automatically copyrighted, without any registration process. The idea behind this is to stimulate greater productivity by giving an exclusive licence, enforced by the government, to commercial use of those words. But the exclusive licence lasts too long: It remains in effect decades after you die. Are you inspired to be more productive and creative because your words will be copyrighted for 50 years after your death?

The prime beneficiaries of excessively long copyright periods are big companies. The Disney Corporation holds the copyright to Mickey Mouse, and the US Congress periodically extends copyright so Mickey Mouse won't enter the public domain. Perpetual copyright on the instalment plan is a way of protecting Disney's profits by imposing restraints on trade. The key side effect is limiting creativity today.

Another problem is that few of the returns from copyright protection are ever seen by creators. Instead, most of the benefits go to the companies that acquire ownership rights. Copyright has become a system for big companies to make huge profits through controlling rights over other people's creative work. One example: When scientists send their research papers to journals, they have to sign away copyright to the journal owners. Libraries then have to pay exorbitant sums for access to e-versions of the published research papers. This operates as a brake on research, because not everyone has timely access to the published body of research findings. The monopoly rights granted to companies through copyright or patents have a toxic effect in several fields, including pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, software, music and film. Creators have to tread carefully to avoid infringements. Only those with deep pockets can afford to challenge ambit claims by other owners.

But when you think about it, controlling the expression of ideas doesn't make a lot of sense. If you have a pair of shoes, and someone takes them, you can't wear them any longer. But if you write a poem, and thousands of others read it, you still can read and enjoy it yourself. Ideas should be in the public domain, and creators paid for production rather than use of their work - as scientists are.

The absurdities of copyright are becoming ever more obvious in the digital age, and they lead to challenges to the powerful groups that run the copyright system. In the open access movement, scientists are advocating having articles available for free online from the time of publication or shortly afterwards. Some options are to publish in open-access journals, to boycott the big publishers, to post e-versions of articles on institutional websites, and for funding agencies to mandate open access.

Software is one of the biggest areas hamstrung by copyright controls. The major challenge to current monopolies is the movement for free and open source software. Programmers voluntarily offer their expertise and effort in a collective process to produce software that, through a creative method of harnessing existing copyright laws - similar to Creative Commons licenses - allows others to use and build on the code while preventing them from exercising control over it. Free software is widely known as more reliable and error-free than proprietary software. It is a living demonstration of the benefits of allowing creativity to flourish without the dead hand of ownership.

More and more people are refusing to respect the monopoly systems that control the expression of ideas. Those who openly challenge the system are undertaking a form of civil disobedience. Their struggles are crucial to the future of creativity and social welfare.

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia and vice president of Whistleblowers Australia.

Thanks to Chris Moore for useful comments.

Go to

Brian Martin's publications on intellectual property

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website