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There can be no doubt that the debate over the future of intellectual property rights in the internet age is one of the most important that individuals, governments and businesses are currently engaged in.
In a world in which intellectual property is often more valuable than physical property, the stakes could not be higher.
Unfortunately, as I have made clear before, I believe that we're, in many ways, headed in the wrong direction.
A sort of "consumer collectivism" that I call "digital socialism" has pushed many businesses and industries that are rich in intellectual property to the brink, while at the same time encouraging undesirable government involvement in our daily lives.
In this two part series, I'll address "Digital Socialism" and "The Tyranny of the Consumer" and will detail why many of the popular consumer beliefs about intellectual property are actually detrimental to society as a whole.
Socialism: A (Very) Brief Overview
Socialism is quite simply defined as a political and economic system under which there is collective ownership of the means of production and distribution.
The concept of socialism has its roots in reform movements of the 19th century which sought to replace capitalism and the concept of private property with a more egalitarian economic system that distributes wealth more evenly amongst those who labor to produce it.
While there are a number of "branches" of socialist thought and some advocate state control of the means of production and distribution, others advocate "community" ownership with "communities" often coming in the form of unions or cooperatives.
Intellectual Property: A (Very) Brief History
The concept of intellectual property was borne out of the recognition that if the producers of creative works were given no protections, there would be little incentive to produce them in the first place.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution grants Congress the power...
..."to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."
The Copyright Clause as it is called laid the foundations for the well-developed intellectual property laws the United States has today. While they are not perfect and must be interpreted anew from time to time in light of new technologies, these laws still serve a single purpose - protect those who advance society and add to our culture through their creative and inventive works.
Of course, the United States was hardly the first nation to recognize the importance of protecting such works.
In 1662, the UK passed the Licensing Act and in 1709 the Statute of Anne was passed. The Statute of Anne begins:
"Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing, or causing tobe Print-ed, Reprinted, and Published Books, and other Writings, without the Con-sent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings, to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Fami- lies: For Preventing therefore such Practices for the future, and for the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write use-ful Books..."
This is worth noting because it demonstrates that piracy concerns similar in nature to the ones we grapple with today were an issue centuries ago, refuting the argument that today's technologies alone should force us to rethink the validity of intellectual property laws.
Since the Statute of Anne, most civilized nations have come down on the side of protecting the creators of creative works.
The Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property of 1883 and the Berne Convention of 1886 have each been signed by more than 170 sovereign nations.
What is Digital Socialism?
A lot has changed since socialist thought entered the public consciousness 175 odd years ago.
The proletarian revolution envisioned by communist Karl Marx, who believed that socialism was a stepping stone to a communist utopia, never came.
In fact, for better or worse, capitalism around the world in various forms has thrived. As a result, class has become a much more complicated issue and most relevantly, the subjects of production and distribution have become far more complex as we now live in a world influenced largely by intellectual property.
It is this concept of intellectual property that digital socialism revolves around.
I define digital socialism as:
"The belief that there should be, in effect, some form of collective ownership and/or control of intellectual property."
This is not an entirely satisfactory definition in my opinion for a number of reasons but I choose it primarily because "socialism" conveys the spirit of concept and it is more approachable than a phrase such as "consumer collectivism."
In socialism, collective ownership is designed to benefit the individuals who physically produce goods (instead of the private owners of the means of production and distribution). In digital socialism, collective ownership is designed to benefit consumers of intellectual property (instead of the private owners who produce and distribute said intellectual property).
And whereas socialism was borne of the belief that the "bourgeoisie" exploited the working class, digital socialism is largely borne of the belief that the owners of intellectual property use their rights to exploit the consuming class.
The Roots of Digital Socialism
Swedish journalist Karl-Erik Tallmo observes that much of the dissatisfaction with intellectual property, and copyright in particular, originates from the perception that intellectual property is the purview of large companies:
"Judging from today's debate, one might get the idea that copyright is about music, film and big media companies only. Copyright, however, concerns most creative areas: newspaper articles, novels, poems, maps, photographs, painting, sculpture, dramatic works, even private letters. And copyright is primarily a right for the author or originator of a work, not for publishing houses or record companies. But authors and musicians often transfer parts of their rights to media companies or copyright organizations through contracts."
"Here, I would suggest, lies the root of a lot of today's dissatisfaction with copyright: that individual creators (for example musicians) sign bad agreements because they are in an unequal negotiational situation with a too powerful other party (for example a record company). Of course, such inequality exists in society in general, also when it comes to material property, so it is not a flaw in copyright law itself."
Digital socialists ignore this and instead argue that intellectual property rights are inherently exploitative because they are used by major companies to build businesses that are "anti-consumer."
Therefore, according to the logic of the digital socialists, intellectual property rights themselves are inherently flawed and should be altered drastically or done away with altogether.
In Part II tomorrow, I'll discuss the problems with Digital Socialism and why the hypocritical "Tyranny of the Consumer" that it creates is beneficial to no one.