Copyright anomaly in a digital age

Published in The Age (Melbourne), 9 December 1997, p. D9
pdf of published article

Brian Martin

The purpose of the Internet should be to undermine copyright. The easier and cheaper it is to make copies of something, the less sense there is in having intellectual property.

The rationale for intellectual property - primarily copyrights and patents - has never been very good. Physical things, such as bread, shoes, cars or land, can only be used by one or a few people at a time. In the case of ideas and information, in contrast, the originator has full use even after copies have been made. If you write a poem, a million people could have copies and yet there is nothing to stop you reading and savouring the poem.

Some producers argue that they are entitled to intellectual property rights because of the labour they have contributed. But all intellectual products depend, in part, on society. This includes previous thinkers as well as parents and teachers who worked to develop a person's creative skills. Why should rights to an entire chain be given to the final link?

The only decent justification for intellectual property is that it fosters the creation of more ideas. The original rationale for copyrights and patents was to give to reward artistic creators by giving them a temporary monopoly.

The system, however, has gotten totally out of control. Copyright now covers every kind of intellectual production, from business memos to idle doodles. Furthermore, the period of protection has been extended and now lasts decades after a creator's death. If anything, the copyright period should be getting shorter as electronics shortens the period between creation and obsolescence.

The trouble is that intellectual property is very lucrative to powerful corporations and governments. They are the ones that are able to buy copyrights and patents and make money out of other people's labour. Often it is not creators who are rewarded by intellectual property, but bosses and purchasers.

A small software developer has little chance of winning a lawsuit over use of its ideas by a major company. Intellectual property law is complex and costly. Those who can afford the best lawyers are most likely to win.

There have been massive protests in the Third World at the granting of patents on genetic materials, many of which were developed by indigenous farmers over many decades, to western pharmaceutical multinationals. It would cost rich countries very little to provide the benefits of drugs, documents and software to the poor peoples of the world. Instead, western governments have pushed to extract every possible cent from those who can least afford it by pushing through a tough stand on intellectual property as part of GATT.

Even countries like Australia pay more for intellectual property than they receive. As well as transfers from users to owners, mostly from the less wealthy to the more wealthy, there are large costs in administering the system.

'Intellectual property' is actually the wrong term. It should be called 'monopoly privilege', since it involves a temporary monopoly protected by the power of government. In an age of deregulation and alleged primacy of the free market, this sort of government-sponsored monopoly is an anomaly.

Although western government and multinationals are pushing to expand intellectual property, the ease of disseminating information is undermining it. Photocopying started the process and digital technologies have accelerated it. There are few people who haven't broken the law by copying software or taping television shows.

So easy is reproduction and distribution of digital materials that it now may make sense to not bother trying to enforce intellectual property rights. The pop group The Grateful Dead encourages private recordings of its concerts in order to create a larger following and increase audiences. Similarly, a company that gives away its software may be able to make it a popular product, creating prospects for business in documentation, development and specialist adaptations.

At a deeper level, though, there are inherent difficulties in a market for intellectual products. Since ideas can be so easily reproduced, cooperation makes more sense than competition. Scientific ideas are not copyright, and anyone can use a formula published in a mathematical journal. By being able to use and develop other people's ideas without restraint, science has proved to be a dynamic system. That should be a model for social development in a digital age.

Brian Martin is associate professor in science and technology studies at the University of Wollongong.

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