Thursday, September 17, 2020

On Intellectual Property

Cory Doctorow has an unusually long, information-dense post this bimonth, about the background of the concept of intellectual property:


He reviews the history of open source software and the shift toward increasingly stringent restrictions, leading up to the present situation in which taking the wrapper off a box legally commits users to agreements they haven't yet had a chance to read. He discusses in great detail the principle of "interoperability," which lets all railroads run on the same tracks, all brands of lightbulbs work in lamps from different manufacturers, in general all the benefits of standardization. "Interoperability lowers 'switching costs' –- the cost of leaving behind whatever you’re using now in favor of something you think will suit you better." This advantage to consumers, naturally, is something a lot of commercial interests would like to eliminate or minimize. Doctorow analyzes how companies such as Google and Facebook make it easy for customers to start using their services but hard to get out, sometimes impossible to do so without abandoning a wide network of services and contacts. He explores the differences among copyright, patent, and trademark and how those different "creators' monopolies" became bundled together under the single term "intellectual property" -- a development he disapproves of, by the way.

Market monopolists, according to Doctorow, often strip power from the alleged "creator's monopoly." Corporate monopolists also tilt the balance of power as far as possible from the consumer to the seller. The abuse of DRM, one of Doctorow's recurrent topics, is a conspicuous example. Laws against bypassing software, as more and more devices in common use become computerized, will inevitably lead (according to him) to this result: "Software isn’t just a way to put IP into otherwise inert objects. It’s also a way to automate them, to make them into unblinking, ever-vigilant enforcers for the manufacturer/monopolist’s interests. They can detect and interdict any attempt at unauthorized interoperability, and call the appropriate authorities to punish the offenders." Furthermore, "Even where tech is challenging these monopolies, it is doing so in order to create more monopolies." He mentions the Kindle program and Amazon's dominance of the audiobook market as examples.

This article contains much to reread, digest, and debate. Is Doctorow's concluding manifesto valid? "There are no digital rights, only human rights. There is no software freedom, only human freedom."

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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