Is Intellectual Property the next Economic Crisis?

That’s the question that has been dogging me all day. The number of patents awarded is dramatically up over the last fifteen years (including patents on molecules and genes) and the U.S. Congress is considering a (draconian) piece of legislation to vastly expand copyright holders rights. The increasingly restrictive licensing contracts and DRM practices placed on both consumers and libraries wrests the ownership of content back into the hands (and whims) of music, movie, and publishing companies. Fair use has come under attack while copyright rights have expanded tremendously.

I don’t think the charge that intellectual property rights have gone too far is anything new, but I’m wondering when it will start effecting the economy. I say when because it feels like a certainty at this point; the increase in the number of owners and intellectual property units seems to beg for a major collision. I’m sure some would argue that it already has created different chilling effects for innovation, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. It brings me back to the question on how innovation and creativity will continue on when companies assert ownership claims over whole or parts of existing platforms, products, and designs?

I usually try to think through my blog posts before I release them into the wild, but for this one I need some additional outside thoughts. My fear is that my pessimism is blinding me on this one and I want some outside opinions.

6 thoughts on “Is Intellectual Property the next Economic Crisis?

  1. It’s a bit ironic to me that you would write about this issue at this time, as I just finished a unit in one of my classes about IP rights. I’m with you in your thinking that patents & copyrights & DRM are going too far. Software patents alone are stifling innovation in technology, as the open source movement has proven that an idea can always be improved upon when it’s available to all. That may not necessarily apply to copyrights, as I love a good book as much as the next person and believe that the author has a right to fair compensation. Those last two terms could be considered by some to be an oxymoron, depending on the author’s contract.

    Congress is being unduly influenced by the media publishers (and consequently, the majority of rights owners) to tilt things in their favor. That’s because they have the pockets deep enough to hire someone to work the Halls of Congress to get what they want, and most Americans don’t care to pick up the phone or to e-mail their Congress critters. What they all fail to realize is, that once a work is digitally published, IT IS GOING TO BE COPIED & DISTRIBUTED whether they want it to or not. Making that illegal is what leads to sites like The Pirate Bay.

    What’s the answer? I don’t know. Perhaps more authors & musicians should shed the yoke of the publishers & start self-publishing, a la Radiohead’s model of pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth. I know it’s not the best fit for everyone, but it would probably only take six major artists/authors to open the industries’ eyes.

  2. Andy, I see this topic as as part of the larger dialogue OCCUPY helped catalyze. All our resources – natural, financial, political, intellectual – are being concentrated in the hands of a very few corporations/individuals. The rest of us share the risk, the dangers, the fear. In addition to padding the Halls of Congress with money, as Jimmy noted, over the past generation the power elite has, through patient incrementalism, masterfully distracted and impoverished the American people so we cannot confront their corruption.

    One of the reasons I advocate for strong libraries is because I see them as a potentially effective antidote to the distraction, isolation, animosity and ignorance the power elite has engendered within us.

    Things aren’t so far gone that citizens can no longer meet in a library to sort out issues of importance to them. With some fact-checking, research and common sense we can better understand some of the things that now seem unfathomable to us. It would be a lot of work, but with some motivated citizens and skilled librarians among us we might have a better chance of separating the wheat from the chaff. The media sure ain’t helping us do it.

    Because so many people still associate libraries with our best ideals, within our library walls we have a chance of truly seeing one another and realizing that much more unites us than divides us. I know I’m a big enough person to stand alongside someone who may disagree with me about how we conduct ourselves in the middle-East and who also loves his family as much as I love mine and who is as scared about losing his job and healthcare as I am …

  3. There are countervailing movements that libraries can and should support: open source, open access, open data, Creative Commons. They’re making strides!

    Noting my own bias (data management is what I do, and part of what I teach): Open data is particularly important for academic librarians at research institutions, because the norms around it have not solidified, meaning there’s more opportunity to move them in directions we’d prefer they go.

    As for the legal infrastructure — yes, it’s entirely out of whack, but there’s enough internecine warfare around it just now (look at the coalition against SOPA/ProtectIP) that there’s some chance it’ll be dismantled from within, at least in part. Can we help? I hope so!

  4. As always, the issue is who benefits, the few or the many. It’s one thing for the creator of the work to benefit, but that is not the way it is skewed. When businesses that distribute the work are holding the copyrights and where businesses are buying up copyrights, it is neither the creator or the consumer/user that benefits. There are other models, such as the one we in libraries work with everyday, but they have a hard time being heard over the profit model.

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