Intellectual Property Rights Do Not Exist

Now before you get your shorts tied up in knots I am not saying that an artist doesn't have a right to protect and earn money from his work, or that Microsoft shouldn't be able to make money off of it's products, or that copyrights shouldn't be enforced, or that downloading music illegally is all good.

So please take your blinders off, sit back and take a deep breath, and please try to read what I write, instead of reading one or two lines and inferring whatever you want in what I write.

Got it? Good.

Let me say it again: Intellectual Property Rights don't exist. You can't "steal" and idea or a thought or an imagination. Nothing material has been exchanged. If I think of building an airplane first, that doesn't mean that someone else living somewhere else living under the same conditions wouldn't have come up with the exact same idea later on.

But there is something wrong with downloading music illegally, abusing a copyright, or ingnoring what people refer to as "intellectual property rights."

The problem is that it's a lie. It's not theft. I think we have gotten our sins all mixed up in the quest to live honorable lives.

Patents DO Have Problems

Some people try to pepper over the obvious injustices caused by the copyright laws in the world. "It's the law," I've been told. So obviously we must follow it I'm told.

Problem is that the law has, and frequently is wrong and riddled with injustice. Sometimes we have a duty to fight immoral laws in the name of justice.

But those that just sit back and ingnore the complaints of many in the IT industry about how certain monopolies are created by said laws are not doing their cause any justice.

I'll start with a quote with much more wisdom than I have in my pinky finger to make my point:“The granting [of] patents ‘inflames cupidity’, excites fraud, stimulates men to run after schemes that may enable them to levy a tax on the public, begets disputes and quarrels betwixt inventors, provokes endless lawsuits...The principle of the law from which such consequences flow cannot be just.” - The Economist 1851

The Economist was right then. There is something drastically wrong about the way we protect ideas with the granting of patents and copyrights.

But if you still don't think there is a serious problem with the whole concept of intellectual property rights I'd invite you to consider the fact that "Happy Birthday" is patented.

"The current owner of the 1935 copyright believes that one cannot sing 'Happy Birthday to You' lyrics for profit without paying royalties."

You heard that correctly. So he's had lawyers apparently running around the world suing restaurants where people are caught singing "Happy Birthday."

The next time you're in a restaurant you'll notice that when the staff come to a client to sing them a song for their birthday it's always some made up song that the restaurant has come up with... That's no coincidence.

So the next time you sing Happy Birthday, remember to make sure that it isn't in a place or environment that could be construed to be "making profit."

If that doesn't convince you that there is a fundamental problem with the modern concept of people owning an idea - nothing will.

It's not theft, it's worse... It's a Lie

When I start working at a company they immediately throw a pile of documents at me to sign.

In the pile of documents one piece of paper will most probably be titled "Confidentiality Agreement" or something to that effect.

You sign it, and agree to uphold the conditions of the agreement. That means that any information that can be classified as "intellectual property" by the agreement can not be disclosed to people outside the company ie competitors or whomever else they specify.

What happens if you break that agreement? Did you steal the idea?

You didn't walk into the office and take an idea from someone's head that they no longer have access to did you? Nothing material was exchanged, so it wasn't theft.

But the company would still be wronged. Then what did you do? You lied by breaking the terms of the agreement that by signing you indicated that you would abide by.

You broke your word. Some would consider that worst than theft.

Stealing an Idea

We're going to do a quazy thought experiment at this point.

If you walked up to me and said, "hey bub, I got a great idea. Let me tell you about it."

And so you did tell me all about the idea.

Then I went off on my merry way and decided to use your idea for my own benefit without giving you any credit whatsoever.

You feeling pretty good about that plan? Probably not. Why is that? Nothing material was exchanged and I didn't steal anything from you.

Don't matter. You'll still stand up and exclaim "You stole my idea!"

It aint true. And you know it. But there is something wrong with what I did - mainly that I wasn't acting in an honorable or upright manner. You just scream out "You stole my idea!" because you don't know how else to express it.

When you came up to me and told me that idea you probably assumed that I was an honorable guy and I would respect the norms of good conduct. I wouldn't try to screw you over, or use whatever information you gave me in a way you wouldn't want.

In effect we entered into an unwritten agreement. The norms of good conduct would stipulate that I not use your idea unless I received your permission first, and at the very least gave you credit for what you did.

In other words by not observing those norms I was acting dishonestly. I should have told you that I don't opperate by those norms to begin with.

Now who else will work with me? Especially knowing that I was not willing to observe the norms of good conduct in that situation? I might act dishonestly in another situation for all they know...

I won't have anyone come up to me to tell me their idea anymore, or trust me for that matter. Eventually I learn that for other people to trust me I have to abide by those unwritten norms.

Call it "natural law." Call it what you will. It exists.

It's all about the Service Agreement

When you install a piece of software you invaribly have to click "I agree" at the notice of a service agreement or some legal document. Mostly you ingnore and click past it.

Regardless of whether we know it or not we are effectively signaling our intention to enter that agreement with whomever made the software in the first place. It doesn't mean we own the software. It doesn't mean we have a right to a darn thing. It means we agree to use their information in the way they want us to as spelled out in that agreement.

When we buy CD's there is always fine print spelling out a copyright somewhere. That copyright, whether we agree to it or not, spells out that by buying that CD you agree to be bound by their rules whatever they may be.

No one owns information. The whole idea is not valid as far as I'm concerned. But we can and do enter agreements with companies or individuals and we are no less bound to follow them.

The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions

The good intentions of many lead a lot of people to bash others over the head with the comment "music piracy is illegal and it's theft!"

For people such as myself that comment sometimes rings hollow. How can it be theft if nothing material has been exchanged? What about all the injustices that patents cause? How then can patents be just?

"Theft is theft," I'm told. Such a stupid horrible person I am to think any different. Sometimes it's like they assume you're running an illegal downloads site, or you're making pirated downloads by the boat load each night... The possibility that you avoid it, even though it makes no sense to you, mainly out of fear that all these knuckleheads around you are actually right, doesn't cross their minds one bit.

I'm sure that isn't the intent of proponents of Intellectual Property Rights. That being the same myself I want to be the first to admit that I could be wrong about everything I'm saying here, and that I'm not going to beat you down with a stick if you disagree with me.

Heck, I've been wrong many times before. So if you figure you got a better idea then give her up here in the comments section below.

Far too often I hear people asking the question "Is downloading music wrong?" only to hear the answer "It's theft. Of course it's wrong." Really? Have you realy thought about it?

They're most certainly right that in the sense that when you use someone else's idea without their permission we exclaim "you stole my idea" we are "stealing." But stealing implies that if we had bought that "idea" we would then own it.

That creates a whole bunch of new problems that people don't always consider.

When you think it's Stealing...

Currently songs downloaded from Apple's iTunes store have what is called "Digital Rights Managment" (DRM) information stored on them. Some people have suggested that the term is a misnomer and should be called "Digital Restrictions Management." The first insinuates that you have rights and they are being managed. The second makes it clear you have restrictions and they are being managed. The later is the truth unfortunately.

DRM's are used typically to restrict the use of your songs. Like in Napster's case, it's songs will stop playing after you cancel your subscription. In Apple's case it restricts you to only be able to play those songs on Apple's iPod. Apparently that's owning the music you pay for.

Some say they own those songs when they buy them. Because you know, if they stole them, it would be theft. So they subscribe to the idea of DRM stripping with removes the protection of those files. It's unfair that DRM's are imposed on them in the first place.

The only problem is that according to iTunes, and Napster's user agreements, they specify that removing such protections is prohibited. So to download those songs you must agree to those agreements in the first place.

Their position? Until Apple makes a cease and decist order it's not illegal so it's not wrong.

That's one way of doing things I guess... One would not have to care about "honesty" to use that justification I would think.

If you believe that you don't own the songs, but that you bought into an agreement, all of sudden the moral picture changes.

Furthermore DRM stripping is illegal according to the Digital Millenium Copyrights Act (DMCA).

Funny, that if you assume that you own information, you should be able to do with it as you will. The DMCA assumes otherwise.

It would seem that either the US Congress is acting immorally in a digital sense, or the whole concept of owning information must be wrong in some way.

You take your pick as to which you agree with. There is an inconsistency in any event.

User Agreements... User Agreements...

In the end this means one thing - you are bound to the agreements you make.

The law should reflect this by not treating patent holders as Kings of digital fiefdoms. The law should not create imaginary "intellectual property rights." Copyrights, and the like should be used to enforce binding contracts. It should be seen as a matter of "tort law" or just as confidentiality agreements are seen legally today.

That changes the whole nature of the game. If it's all about user agreements, then, in that case not only do you have obligations under the agreement, but the person giving the information has obligations. Software providers should back up the viability of their product in those agreements. Artists could also have obligations that if certain objectionable content is on their song/music/art they would have to make it clearly known to the person entering into the agreement.

Then also it becomes possible for the person who provided the information to breach that agreement. And the courts become a legitimate avenue to satisfy the injustice that was caused by say a software provider or even an artist.

When it comes to "Happy Birthday" agreements could have a "public domain" clause that limits the viability of an agreement before the information becomes part of the public domain.

Those that try to create to restrictive agreements are no doubt not going to find many takers. The Free-Market I believe would encourage a healthy balance between restrictions on use and the price people are willing to pay.

Either way you shake it you are breaking your word by not abiding to copyrights and what they refer to as "Intellectual Property Rights." If you think the difference in wording makes no difference, then your miles ahead of me so please enlighten.

I can't understand how you can believe that you can "own" music without believing that DRM stripping is fine and dandy.

If you do, please fire a comment down below correcting me. I'd rather someone set me straight than I go around preaching falsehoods.

So please comment away... I know I'm bound to get a couple unhappy commenters after writting this that will only read the title of this post and scream at me "it's theft you immoral idiot!" and then go on their merry way.

Things are definitely not as they should be.


  1. Anonymous6:35 PM

    While I don't disagree with your position (I'm a frequent "pirater" of music), the one trouble with your argument is the ramifications that it presents for our current economic model in the West. In more "cutting-edge" jurisdictions, where the economy is built on R&D, the efforts of human capital would be watered down considerably by disregarding copyrights. In fact, as our economy moves from shipping and producing goods towards developing new processes and ideas for commercial gain, disrespecting copyright laws has dangerous consequences for millions of workers' efforts.

    Your solution should instead be developed around more equitable IP laws- such as sticking to 25-yr copyrights to protect both the producer to make money, but to allow for the idea to proliferate freely through society after 25 yrs. Governments that practice the restrictions of public access to private ideas after a generation practice tyranny, as far as I'm concerned.

    The whole idea of copyrighting "Happy Birthday" seems absurd to me.

    Any chance you're a vehicle producer in China? LOL.

  2. "...the efforts of human capital would be watered down considerably by disregarding copyrights..."

    I'm not suggesting anything like that...

    I had hoped that people would read what I actually wrote.

    What I'm suggesting is that we stop seeing copyrights as property, and start seeing it as simply a series of binding agreements.

    Then the agreement itself becomes something that is guided by the free market economy and enforced by the state through tort law.

    As it stands right now patents are created and enforced by the government.

  3. PS - pirating music is wrong as far as I'm concerned.

    I just wanted to make sure you understood that's where I'm coming from.

    And no I'm not a Chinese vehicle producer... Though what they're doing aint right either.