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Ars Technica: Intellectual Property and the Good Society

Aug 04, 2001, 19:45 (13 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Jon)

Ars Technica tackles the issue of intellectual property, describing the debate as one largely driven by extremes and characterized by a need to find the balance between personal freedom and the right of creators to profit from their work:

"Since Ars Technica started in the summer of '98, I've seen a steady increase in the amount of reporting that I do on intellectual property-related issues. This trend isn't due to a change in my tastes in reporting the news so much as it is to a marked increase in the visibility of intellectual property (IP) as a significant factor in the shaping of the technological and cultural landscape. IP has always been there, a mostly neglected, esoteric corner of the legal system that has functioned largely out of sight of the majority of consumers. But as of the past few years, the sheer volume of patent, trademark and copyright disputes seems to have increased exponentially. Even more significantly, these disputes are having a greater impact on everyday folks, from Quake mod authors to music fans to farmers. The current situation has caught many of us off guard, provoking confusion as to the nature and/or reality of an IP-based threat to our civic freedoms.

Many of the voices in online debates around IP fall into one of two camps. I won't take the time to do more than very briefly summarize these two positions, because we're all familiar with them by now. The first is the "information wants to be free" camp, which advocates the free and communal sharing of information and rejects any notion that products of the intellect can or should be understood, legally or philosophically, as property. At the other extreme is a camp that is comfortable drawing direct, strong analogies between concepts of ownership of physical property and concepts of ownership of intellectual property. Furthermore, this camp is intent on letting the "free" market determine a value for information, much as it determines a value for more traditional types of property. This second camp usually feels that the anti-IP rhetoric coming from the first camp is merely a rationale for piracy, while the first camp feels that members of the second are mindless shills for the corporate machine.

Somewhere in between these two extremes lies a large majority who find both extremes attractive for different reasons, but who can't in good conscience commit to one stance or the other. These people (myself included) on the one hand acknowledge the many benefits that IP law has yielded in the modern economy, but on the other hand worry about the ever-encroaching technological and legal threats to our personal freedoms by large, moneyed corporations wielding bands of lawyers. Developments in the daily news make us uneasy, and we don't quite buy the argument that a creator (or a third party rightsholder) has some sort of basic, God-given, exclusive "right" to completely dictate how, when, and where you use the products of his or her labor. Neither, though, will our essential conviction that people are entitled to be able to profit from their work allow us to be convinced that price-free access to all products of the intellect is a basic civic right."

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