Intellectual Property

Is Intellectual Property my friend or my foe?

Such an incredibly frustrating (and yet indeed thought-provoking) question.  While it may seem to some a cut-and-dry decision, I honestly can’t decide.  This is not so much a black and white issue as you can’t just up and say “IP is bad” or “IP is good.” I mean, you can–and certainly people do— but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I find myself in a sort of gray area on the subject.

Just as anything intangible can be extremely difficult to embrace (think of agnostics in religion, for example), it can be incredibly complicated to embrace the concept of intellectual property.  I suppose then it is understandably easier to treat intellectual property like physical property– for both mental reasons and for government regulation…I mean, protection.

While it may be easier to apply the same qualities of physical property to intellectual property, there remains a huge caveat:

Physical things can run out and can be considered “scarce,” whereas products of the mind (thoughts and ideas) are seemingly endless, or “infinite.”

Mike Masnick actually summed it up pretty well in a 2007 TechDirt article:

“The purpose of property is to better manage the allocation of scarce resources. Since the resource is limited and not everyone can have it, property rights and property law make complete sense for a civilized society, allowing those with rights to the property to buy, sell and exchange their property.”

It starts getting tricky, then, when you apply the same concept of physical property rights to intellectual property.  It seems that ownership and money are the key variables here.

I can sell you my house and begin receiving money for it.  After the house is paid off, I stop receiving money because it is no longer mine to own. I have no say in what happens to it anymore.

I can sell you something I created and want money for. However, unlike the house, I still own (and perhaps will always own) the original idea and want people to know it is my idea and hopefully keep making money for it. Therefore, I get pretty miffed when people use my stuff without going through the proper channels (e.g. paying or asking permission), or even worse, copying my idea as their own for income.

Intellectual Property Comic
A cartoon snippet from Mimi and Eunice’s Intellectual Pooperty Minibook

Admittedly, this a very simplified way of thinking about intellectual property.  In my readings, I’ve found that many people seem to get hung up on the name alone as intellectual property consists of several different sets of laws (although to be clear, it doesn’t bother me so much as a general reference in conversation).

Some people even go so far as to say that grouping these sets of laws–namely copyright, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets– is a “seductive mirage” that leads to simplistic generalization:

“The term ‘intellectual property’ is at best a catch-all to lump together disparate laws. Nonlawyers who hear one term applied to these various laws tend to assume they are based on a common principle and function similarly. Nothing could be further from the case. These laws originated separately, evolved differently, cover different activities, have different rules, and raise different public policy issues.”

As a guide, I’ve attached a helpful diagram for identifying some key differences in the laws that make up intellectual property.

Types of Intellectual Property

At this point in time, I’m faced with a dilemma.

In theory, intellectual property sounds like a friend.  In practice, it leans more towards foe.  How can one identify a generalized term like intellectual property as inherently good or bad when it is so situation-dependent?

I’m sure there are many other points (and points of view) I’m missing here.  It would mean a lot if you would help me continue this narrative in the comments section.

3 comments on “Intellectual Property

  1. “While it may seem to some a cut-and-dry decision, I honestly can’t decide. This is not so much a black and white issue as you can’t just up and say “IP is bad” or “IP is good.”

    Boom There it is. You hit the nail on the head. There is no right or wrong answer here, in my opinion. I think it has to do with context and application. Great Post.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head with “How can one identify a generalized term like intellectual property as inherently good or bad when it is so situation-dependent?” I also had a really hard time deciding which side I was on because although the argument against IP was really persuasive, there were some situations where I could not find a viable alternative. It make this issue especially difficult because laws are not situational, they are universal. You cannot take into account the particular context of each IP to decide whether it is lawful. So where does that leave us?

  3. Lemme guess, you’re not a Kinsella fan. :-)

    You bring up an excellent point that IP – creations of the mind – is infinite. Quite true. I think that reduces their value. Because of the internet, content has become a cycle of reinterpretation and regurgitation – one can enter the roundabout at any point and still have a moment where the audience recognizes and appreciates their ingenuities (comments, likes, etc.).


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