rnd's website logoon property (and intellectual property)

So I was thinking: the anarchist view that "property is theft" is definitely at least somewhat true. After all, if society started with the idea that nothing belongs to anybody, that everything is in the commons, then for property to appear, whatever was before it had to be "stolen" from the commons.

And this is just talking about the most graceful possible example. In case of colonialist expansion, things were often literally stolen, and people literally enslaved, from whichever lands were colonized.

By that logic, property is quite literally theft. But what about "intellectual property"? After all, there's no limit on what someone can create, right?

Here I'd probably agree on the most basic idea -- that in most cases, intellectual property is not created by taking something from the commons -- but even then, there are enough exceptions and ways for people to abuse the system.

  • The most well-known is companies like Disney taking famous public-domain works and creating new copyrighted ones after them. On one hand, the original fairy tales and stories didn't disappear anywhere, and are still in the public domain, but in many people's imaginations, the most prominent versions of them are the Disney-made ones.

  • Another issue is that the legal system itself is often skewed in favor of the rich and powerful. A big company with a legal department can easily find a way to borrow just enough elements from an independent creator's work (whether it be a clothing design, or a dance, or a piece of software) in such a way as to avoid violating any laws. But the reverse is much less likely.

  • When it comes to laws like the DMCA, these become even easier to abuse, since instead of having every claim pass through the legal system, there's an even weaker system in place. On websites such as YouTube, people making videos are often in a situation where the website presumes guilt and requires users to prove their videos don't contain other people's copyrighted content. Sometimes, fraudulent companies outright copy and back-date their content in order to censor news articles.

And, of course, intellectual property still perpetuates the same inequalities between people and countries that currently exist. Wikipedia's list of 50 highest-grossing movies entirely consists of works made in the U.S. and Europe. The list of movies by box-office admissions also features films made in China, India and other large countries, but is still very Eurocentric.

People with more money and ability to make intellectual property will get to make more of it, and while there's no limit to how much can be created, there's still a limit to how much anyone can see. (Though IMO this is less of an issue with intellectual property itself and more with the inequalities of the world today.)

This gets even worse when you consider inventions that can outright save human lives. As of the moment of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting India extremely hard, with daily cases not seen anywhere else. Companies in the U.S., the U.K., Europe, Russia and China have all developed vaccines for the virus. From a public health standpoint, it would make the most sense to allow any country to produce these vaccines, but patent laws make this impossible, and requests to waive the patents for the duration of the pandemic have been ignored by all of these countries, which have instead opted for aid schemes that, while better than nothing, are still inadequate in fighting the pandemic, given that achieving herd immunity seems to require between 70 and 90% of the population to be vaccinated.

Having said that, simply calling for abolition of intellectual property, at least while nothing is being done to address all the issues with regular property, is likely to do more harm than good. Large companies and organizations will still have more ability to copy independent creators' works than vice versa. Secretive software companies can still make it hard to copy or reimplement their code, while freely copying open-source creations with even less restrictions than before. And research that previously was publicized (since a patent typically contains a detailed explanation of the thing being patented and how it works) will just be contained behind closed doors, and shared among organizations under tight security controls.

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