I am doing a course with WIPO Distance Learning (DL101 : General Course on Intellectual Property). I am about 1/8 through the course, and begin to form some opinion on the course. I will write a review when I complete the course, which should be sometime late November. Right now, inspired by the first module that introduce the notion of Intellectual Property ownership, I want to attempt to reconcilate my conflicting view on why certain so called IP, such as copyrights and trademarks, are fine and acceptable, but others, like Patents, are not acceptable.
Opponents of open source keep spreading FUD about open source proponent are against Intellectual Property, which open source proponents counterclaim by saying that the open source rely on Intellectual Property protection to protect their work, in particular, the copyright provision. Lately, open source proponent, like myself, have rally behind the movement against Software Patent. Some members of the general public probably think that we are hypocrits by embracing some form of IP protection that benefits us, namely Copyright, but decries other that do not or expensive to obtain, namely patent. Opponents of open source is starting to use this “inconsistency” to attack open source. Various members of the open source community had addressed this issues before.
My own struggle with Intellectual Property is that Intellectual Property Protection has gone overboard and is constraining humanity, rather than advance it. I believe that Intellectual Property, properly implemented, do help advance humanity, but at a price. The price we pay is short term ownership of a piece of “intellectual property” by individuals (including companies). However, in the long run, the society benefits because this short term ownership is conditional on the owner disclosure on how he did it. And if society can exploits the disclosure and retake ownership after the “short term” private ownership expires, the pain is worth it. The history of the Chinese People is one littered with a lot of lost “inventions”, all of which are well substantiated by various documents. These inventions are lost because there is no framework that reward and encourage the inventors to disclose how they did it. Thus, inventors rather take their inventions to the grave than to tell others how to make it. I can only imagine how much richer our society will be if these inventions are not lost.
The problem I have with IP laws are their implementation, in particular the constant redefinition of “short-term private ownership” which seems to be getting longer and longer. In my opinion, these extensions are often not justifiable, as they are contrary to my stated priciple above on what IP is meant to be. This is the easy part to explain. However, my view is not that simple, because I find that certain categories of IP rights, is more repungant than others. Although I have a certain ideas on why this is the case, I am often at a lost on how to explain this. That is, until I took the course.
The course explains that Intellectual Property is like a phsyical property, e.g. real estate, where it can be owned by excluding others from using the “property”. I have trouble with the physical property analogy, for the sake of this blog entry lets just leave it as it is. Rather, lets focus on the issue of “excluding others on using the property”. This is the root of the problem I have with certain categories of intellectual property.
If IP is like a house, I have no problem with it. This is because many people can own houses. They simply own different houses. These houses serve the same purpose: providng shelter. The houses can be very similar (think terrace houses), but not identitcal (must occupy different spaces). Since there can be many houses owned by many people, excluding the majority of people to use a particular house does not really bother any one, including me, as long as there is enough house to go around.
Now, imagine that you cannot own a house because someone else own all the houses in this world. Futhermore, this someone is not impartial, is out there to protect his own interest at the detriment of others if necessary, and his decision is final and binding with no rights to appeal. In effect, he has a monopoly on house ownership. If this is the case there will be a big uproar against this monopoly.
For intellectual properties that behave like “Properties”, where different people can own similar (but not identical) properties, I am fine with the notion of granting temporary exclusive rights. It serves the purpose of rewarding the creation of the property and there is no overbroad exclusivity. Copyrights, Trademarks and related rights falls into this category.
However, if Intellectual Property start to behave like “Monopoly”, i.e., only one person can own the property to for his exclusive use, then they should ideally be banned, or extremely heavily regulated, to ensure that they are consistent with public good. In the case of Patent what is granted is a form of “monopoly”, but unlike other form of monopoly (electricity, gas and telephone for example), they are NOT regulated at all. I think this is wrong and should be vehemently opposed.
Is it an accident that the words “Intellectual Property” rather than “Intellectual Monopoly” is prefered? I do not think so. The word “Monopoly” have a negative cognotation and immediately put one in the defence of not granting the right. If the rights is granted to somebody, that person is usually under constant watchful eye and heavily regulated. However, using the word “property” give the whole thing a different meaning. It implies that the rights should be, by default, granted, unless there is a compelling reasons not to, and that regulations is not really necessary. Psychologically and practically speaking, the use of the word “property” favour the rights owners.
Indeed, as I had mentioned, some IP do behave like property, and therefore the terms IP is apporpriate for them. However, IP that behaves like monopoly should be identified instead as Intellectual Monopoly. It is simply a matter of saying things as they are.