Saturday, June 19, 2004

Copyright, Patents, "Intellectual Property"

To me, one of the more interesting problems of recent times is that of
so-called "intellectual property" by which people mean copyrighted
works, patented inventions, trademarked terms and a variety of other
pieces of information. Calling it "Intellectual Property" is really
an awful name given that it lacks most of the qualities usually
associated with "property". It's non-rivalrous, in that I can have it
and give it to you and in no way diminish the extent to which I have
it. It's possible for two people to both have it without knowing it
or even ever having come in contact, in the case of simultaneous
inventions or works. It has zero marginal cost to produce "copies".
The list goes on. It's not really property.

While I was in college, I was first exposed to the whole idea of "free
software" and later, "open source". These are very compelling models
for software and I use and contribute to such projects regularly.
However, I started a proprietary software company, I hold a patent, I
wrote a copyrighted book, and don't have a problem with the idea of
proprietary software or other works as a governmentally granted right.
I have a great deal of respect for the ideals of folks like Richard
Stallman, but I think a world in which all software was copylefted
would have some incentive issues.

As a producer of creative works I recognize the value of a "creative
commons", as described by folks like Lawrence Lessig and well
discussed in a recent piece
on DRM by Cory Doctorow
. I also see the value in protection of
works as an incentive. While it is true that a great many works would
be created even without the ability to legally prevent copying and
redistribution, many would not. As has been pointed out by many, this
would still be the case even if the duration of the rights were
dramatically reduced.

If copyright were a "mere" 10 years, I can't imagine many works would
go unproduced as a result. Blockbuster movies certainly wouldn't be
shied away from. Most books don't stay in print that long. Much
software is useless after that long. And yet, every decade or two
there's a court case to extend the duration of copyright.

Patents seem to be a somewhat different case. Reducing the duration
of patent protection would probably have limited impact on software
inventions but could substantially deter more costly innovation such
as pharmaceutical development. Given that patents are individually
inspected and evaluated anyway, it seems natural that the patent
office could assign a term for a patent on a case-by-case basis.

It's a real shame that the recent case opposing to the copyright
extension didn't succeed. I fully believe copyright and patents are
important to encouraging innovation, but much shorter durations would
be a real societal benefit without be a substantial deterrent to such

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