The idea of ‘intellectual property’ is nonsensical and pernicious | Aeon

Source: The idea of ‘intellectual property’ is nonsensical and pernicious | Aeon Samir Chopra

‘Intellectual property’ is a culturally damaging and easily weaponised notion. Its use should be resisted.

The grand term ‘intellectual property’ covers a lot of ground: the software that runs our lives, the movies we watch, the songs we listen to. But also the credit-scoring algorithms that determine the contours of our futures, the chemical structure and manufacturing processes for life-saving pharmaceutical drugs, even the golden arches of McDonald’s and terms such as ‘Google’. All are supposedly ‘intellectual property’. … But what kind of property is this? And why do we refer to such a menagerie with one inclusive term?

There are four areas of US federal law linked under the rubric of ‘intellectual property’ that we ought to keep separate in our minds. … copyright, patent, trademark and trade secret law were motivated by widely differing considerations. Their intended purposes, the objects covered and the permissible constraints all vary.

A general term is useful only if it subsumes related concepts in such a way that semantic value is added. If our comprehension is not increased by our chosen generalised term, then we shouldn’t use it. A common claim such as ‘they stole my intellectual property’ is singularly uninformative, since the general term ‘intellectual property’ obscures more than it illuminates. If copyright infringement is alleged, we try to identify the copyrightable concrete expression, the nature of the infringement and so on. If patent infringement is alleged, we check another set of conditions (does the ‘new’ invention replicate the design of the older one?), and so on for trademarks (does the offending symbol substantially and misleadingly resemble the protected trademark?) and trade secrets (did the enterprise attempt to keep supposedly protected information secret?). The use of the general term ‘intellectual property’ tells us precisely nothing. Furthermore, the extreme generality encouraged by ‘intellectual property’ obscures the specific areas of contention created by the varying legal regimes.

Why then does ‘intellectual property’ remain in use? Because it has polemical and rhetorical value. Its deployment, especially by a putative owner, is a powerful inducement to change one’s position in a policy argument. It is one thing to accuse someone of copyright infringement, and another to accuse of them of the theft of property. The former sounds like a legally resolvable technicality; the latter sounds like an unambiguously sinful act.

Property is a legally constructed, historically contingent, social fact. It is founded on economic and social imperatives to distribute and manage material resources – and, thus, wealth and power. … Law makes property part of our socially constructed reality, reconfigurable if social needs change.

Legal systems of property are pragmatic and outcome-oriented. They bring about desired social ends through a historically contingent, evolving blend of rights and duties for owners. There is no ‘natural’ or ‘objective’ basis for property; we deem something property because better social outcomes are realised by doing so.

legal protections offered to intellectual property assets are utilitarian grants – they are neither perpetual nor exclusive. (Tangible property is said to be perpetual because it is yours till you dispose of it.) Their terms are limited and amenable to nonexclusive use. Patent law offers exceptions for experimental use, and prior-use rights for business methods; copyright law for fair use; trademark law for nominative use; trade secrets for reverse engineering and independent discovery.

Intellectual property rights are granted reluctantly: here is your limited property right with exceptions for nonexclusiveness, so that your knowledge can flow back into the public domain, there to be built upon by others.

The resulting legal and economic landscape finds power concentrated in corporations with indefinitely extensible copyright terms, gigantic patent portfolios and politically influential trade secrets – each of which can trigger an endless series of litigious disputes in courts, and induce a chilling effect in the work of artists and innovators, and in the daily affairs of citizens.

This public domain is ours to draw upon for future use. The granting of temporary leases to various landlords to extract monopoly rent should be recognised for what it is: a limited privilege for our benefit. The use of ‘intellectual property’ is a rhetorical move by one partner in this conversation, the one owning the supposed ‘property right’. There is no need for us to play along, to confuse one kind of property with another or, for that matter, to even consider the latter kind of object any kind of property at all. Doing so will not dismantle the elaborate structures of rules we have built in order to incentivise artistic and scientific work. Rather, it will make it possible for that work to continue.