Intellectual property

In contrast to real property (the ownership of land), intellectual property focuses on the ownership of ideas. Here I will extend this more generally to the ownership of reputation as well, and include three types of ownership grouped under three instruments:
Trademark: permanent ownership of “brand” and name-affiliation;
Patent: temporary monopoly ownership of designs and innovations;
Copyright: temporary monopoly ownership of creative visual or written works.

My grumpy speech about intellectual property

(Spring 2014)

In my courses I make it pretty clear that intellectual property is a crucial step in the development of the modern world. It is one of the key distinctions between mercantilism and capitalism. It played a central role in the steam-powered Industrial Revolution (Newcomen, 1708; James Watt, 1760-1789; Richard Trevithick, 1802-04; and George Corliss’ engine, 1849). Patents powered the Second Industrial Revolution in materials as well: from Bessemer’s steel-refining process (1855), through dyes and chemicals (1870s), to antibiotics (1920s onwards). AND it continues to fund the information-revolution, starting from Samuel Morse’s telegraph-code patent (1844) and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone (1876) down to the current dogfight between Samsung and Apple. The modern practice of granting property-rights to ideas, designs, and creative works has been the basis for most of the wealth-generation in this country, and virtually all the wealth-generation in the Bay Area today.

That’s a good thing; a great thing, in fact. My beef is with large corporations who charge outrageous prices for products based on intellectual-property claims, and the casual threats they throw at us commoners with their deep-pocketed capacity to retain lawyers. I recommend work-arounds wherever possible. Under the Resources tab on this website you will find recommendations for free, open-source software to replace expensive commercial products. You can get a huge amount of work done without commercial software. I am creating this webpage with open source software (WordPress), through an open-source browser (Firefox), running on an open-source operating system (Ubuntu Linux).

But for peer-reviewed journal articles, there is no legal work-around. Academia has become one of the most exclusive gated communities on the internet. That does nothing to help my income, which is not a living wage. Furthermore the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the enforcer of copyright, does not deserve much respect right now. In 2013 the FBI abused their powers to harass Aaron Swartz to suicide. He was trying to release non-classified, publicly-funded JSTOR documents. Taxpayers paid for that research; it should be public-domain. And the FBI needs to answer for their abusiveness if they want restore public respect for their authority. Furthermore, Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency has shown flagrant disregard for the privacy and security of our private documents and communications. So, wait: why should we obey the law when law-enforcement agencies disregard the law?

My answer for now: as scholars, we need to show law-enforcement agents how to be ethical. I don’t think we should hold ourselves down to the same low ethical standards as the FBI and the NSA. So, copyrighted material will remain behind passwords on this website. But I urge you to push back as hard as you possibly can against corporate efforts to extend copyrights and patents, and against excessive fees and shackling of software and data. Stepping down off my soap-box now…