IP and geek‐do

I am a geek by conviction: I thrive on a diet of caffeinated beverages and information. Not surprisingly then, intellectual property (IP) rights intersect with my affairs on a daily basis.

Until recently I was able to get all the bits I needed for free, quite without worrying about the consequences. While IP has existed for a fair while, it’s been of remote concern to most people, me included. Now this happy situation is beginning to give way to automated enforcement which leaves little room for doubt: soon you’ll pay, or go without.

If you think about people who give their life to data, be they scientists, artists or computer enthusiasts, you’ll see that they do not appear out of nowhere. Instead, they are raised that way, and are usually nurtured on their respective field of knowledge. Musicians learn by first listening, geeks by fooling around with other people’s programs, scientists by tackling the workings of their environment with help from those who went before. The principle is almost invariable.

In my case, acquiring the basic urge and resources to become computer literate was not a matter of rational choice, or indeed something that anyone involved would have consciously planned for—it just happened after I acquired my share of eccentric friends with MIPS to spare. At that time, paying for the software, books or sound bites I needed would not have been an option. Still, those resources were offered to me in an attempt to include me in a developing, local subculture of young computer enthusiasts. Today I am a university student, part‐time programmer, Net enthusiast and soon‐to‐be civil liberties activist.

My view is that most information is, or should be, produced precisely for the kind of social purpose described above; I see computerized information as just another form of speech, more a side‐product of social interaction than an end in itself. Telling people they cannot spread a particular piece of data is then tantamount to putting a gag on them. It makes communication more difficult and hinders cooperation. When this happens to a widening variety of ideas, one is left with a culture of silence which could never produce such wonders as general relativity, Detroit techno, slapstick comedy or the Internet.

The above is no abstract gobbledygook, either. In my everyday life intellectual property manifests itself as trade secrets hidden within corporate firewalls, neat computational tricks unimplementable and unlearnable in the presence of software patents, sound samples I cannot afford to use in my compositions, or cease‐and‐desist email from corporate IP lawyers telling me to change my witty essay title to protect a well‐known brand. The list is endless. All that has made computers a lot less fun than they used to be. If this applies to more people than me, I think the playful experimentation which has been so essential to the rapid digitalization of our environs will soon be just a memory.

As far as I can see, IP is slowly killing all that being a nerd was once about, and to add insult to injury, the slow decline of a culture I hold dear is actually used to applaud the concept of IP: where there is IP, once abundant speech becomes scarce, it can be given a price, and one can make a traditional industry out of it. When that happens, piracy trending to extinction is seen as a sign of order emerging from chaos instead of people being silenced.

One can now see what terrible promise expanding IP rights hold. I believe that corporations’ ever tightening deathgrip on information will eventually kill grassroots innovation and educational possibilities in the intellectual arena, and lead to a shortage of creative minds, an essential ingredient in the current progress of Western culture.

The common objection to what has been said above is that artists and inventors need to make a living, something which is claimed to be impossible in the absence of intellectual property protections. I too have to admit that the argument might not be entirely without merit.

But I also think we could do with a lot less. If I have news, I can sell it if I just have it first. If I do hard science, I couldn’t protect it anyway. Compositions, cinematic adventures and literary mastery would all be old news a mere couple of years after I’d first published them, so why would I care about them after that? Any computer software I produce could be marketed as continuous updates without any copyright protection whatsoever. If I needed brand recognition, third party certifiers could provide that right now. In my industry non‐disclosure agreements are already the norm, so there is little need for additional trade secret protection. And as for patents, cleverly utilizing the accelerated global economy makes it possible for me to rapidly amortize any investment I happened to make in R&D, well before my limited term patent runs out.

I’m certain that even in the complete absence of IP protection, my career choices as an information worker would not be significantly narrowed down. Quite the opposite, in fact, as I would be able to use existing information more freely in my own creative endeavors. It would all be a whole lot easier, too.

What a narrow interpretation of IP would harm is the entertainment industry. There usefulness of the product is less of an issue than token creativity and efficient recycling of existing formats. One might actually argue that the industry in its entirety is a product of contemporary copyright practice which gives what can be thought of as undue attention to form, while completely failing to protect substance—those who created the rudiments of intellectual property law saw that actually granting a monopoly to something with wide applicability, like pure science, would hurt the society more than the incentive provided could ever compensate for. They went on to mainly protect specific expression.

Now bloated copyright has turned this vision on its head, with the trivial repackaging of ideas in pop lyrics or cable sitcoms affording them better financing than is ever given serious scientific creation. If this were to end, I would not only get better entertainment, but also higher chances of getting my own work recognized: now I have to compete with global superstars even for local attention, something which would not be possible if copyright as a monopoly was given stricter bounds.

I tend to think that far from delivering on its promise of delivering a vibrant intellectual commons, the current practice of intellectual property is a primary culprit in its progressive ossification. Intellectual property is already stamping out my chosen way of life, and closing some of the future avenues I might have taken in its absence. One can only guess what escalating IP wars lead to, tomorrow. So, to me, IP as it currently stands is not a brilliant opportunity, or a self‐evident right, but rather a clear and present danger.