January 17th, 2009

Captain Obvious

Intellectual Property reform? How about IP abolition!

The authors show that every great period of innovation in human history has taken place in the absence of intellectual property, and that every thicket of IP has ended up stagnating the industries to which they apply. Think of the early years of the web, in which open-source technology inspired breakneck development, until patents and copyright were imposed with the resulting cartelization of operating systems. Even today, the greatest innovations in digital communications come from the highly profitable open-source movement.

It is impossible to develop software without running into IP problems, and the largest players are living off IP and not innovation. Meanwhile, the most profitable and most innovative sector of the web, the porn sector, has no access to courts and IP enforcement because of the stigma associated with it. It is not an accident that absence of IP coincides with growth and innovation. The connection is causal.

And look at the industries that do not have IP access, such as clothing design and architecture and perfume. They are huge and fast moving and fabulous. First movers still make the big bucks, without coercing competition. Boldrin and Levine further speculate that IP is behind one of the great puzzles of the last millennium: stagnation in classical music. The sector is seriously burdened and tethered by IP.


As a person who earns his paycheck creating intellectual property, I always feel funny calling for the abolition of copyright. But here I am. What I've noticed is that it's the ability to take someone's idea of how something should work, and turn it into a good program, that gets me paid. I do not get paid because I can horde old things - I get paid because I can make new ones. In that way I am no different than a carpenter or a sculptor.

Actually, I'm not so sure that copyright is the problem per se. Yes, copyright terms are far too long. But even crazier is our patent system, which is utterly out of control. There was a time when you could only get a patent on a device, not on a mere idea. The era of software patents changed that. Even worse, the patent database has become so large and disorganized that pretty much anyone who asks can regularly get patents on things with tons of prior art. The whole system has degraded to a point where nobody wins except the lawyers.

Don't expect this to change, though. The only people who give a damn about it are the ones who are profiting from the current broken state of things.