ELNM Topic 13: The Author vs the Information Society

 To Do

Against intellectual property

Brian Martin writes in his book „Information Liberation” (chapter 3 “Against intellectual property”: „There is a strong case for opposing intellectual property. Among other things, it often retards innovation and exploits Third World peoples. The alternative to intellectual property is that intellectual products not be owned, as in the case of everyday language“.

Reading his work I started to think more widely than before, although I was also thought the same way.

Below, I outline some of the more interesting ideas for me. 

Problems with intellectual property

We think that information generated by governments should be available to any member of the public. But in some countries citizens would need permission to copy their own laws. On the other hand there is some government-generated information, wich is turned over to corporations that then sell it to whomever can pay.

There are quite a few cases in which patents have been used to suppress innovation. Companies may inhibit others from applying the ideas, e.g. AT&T‘s monopoly on telephones slowed down the introduction of radio for some 20 years and General Electric retarded the introduction of fluorescent lights

It is interesting that the potential financial returns from intellectual property are said to provide an incentive for individuals to create but in practice, though, most creators do not actually gain much benefit from intellectual property. And an idea worth protecting is usually copyrighted or patented by the organisation, not the employee. Since intellectual property can be sold, it is usually the rich and powerful who benefit.

Also, intellectual property is an attempt to create an artificial scarcity in order to give rewards to a few at the expense of the many. Intellectual property aggravates inequality. It fosters competitiveness over information and ideas, whereas cooperation makes much more sense.

An interesting case is “professional epigrammatist” Ashleigh Brilliant who have created and copyrighted thousands of short sayings and when he finds someone who has “used” one of his epigrams, he contacts them demanding a payment for breach of copyright. And they will pay because it may be cost less than contesting the issue.

The interesting thought is that athletes could patent their sporting innovations but patenting of basketball moves or choreography steps would serve mainly to limit the uptake of innovations and would mainly penalise those with fewer resources to pay royalties.

Martin says that „these examples show that intellectual property has become a means for exerting power in ways quite divorced from its original aim — promoting the creation and use of new ideas.“

The alternative

Martin says: „The alternative to intellectual property is straightforward: intellectual products should not be owned. That means not owned by individuals, corporations, governments, or the community as common property. It means that ideas are available to be used by anyone who wants to.“

For example language, including the words, sounds and meaning systems with which we communicate every day is free for everyone to use. Another example is scientific knowledge: a large proportion of scientific knowledge is public knowledge.

What would happen without ownership of information?


Many intellectual workers fear being plagiarised and many of them think that intellectual property provides protection against this. But it does not. Everyone can take another’s work and say it is his/her. Plagiarism means using the ideas of others without adequate acknowledgment, like plagiarism of ideas or word-for-word plagiarism.

Interesting is that the most common sort of plagiarism is built into social hierarchies (I have not never thought like this): government and corporate reports are released under the names of top bureaucrats who did not write them; politicians and corporate executives give speeches written by underlings.


What about all those who depend for their livelihood on royalties? The alternative is some reorganisation of the economic system. Those few currently dependent on royalties could instead receive a salary, grant or bursary, just as most scientists do.

Many costs are invisible. I like this: „How many consumers, for example, realise how much they are paying for intellectual property when buying prescription medicines, paying for schools (through fees or taxes), buying groceries or listening to a piece of music on the radio? Yet in these and many other situations, costs are substantially increased due to intellectual property. Most of the extra costs go not to creators but to corporations and to bureaucratic overheads — such as patent offices and law firms — that are necessary to keep the system of intellectual property going.“

Stimulating creativity

Without the possibility of wealth and fame, what would stimulate creative individuals to produce works of genius? Actually, most creators and innovators are motivated by their own intrinsic interest, not by rewards. If the goal is better and more creative work, paying creators on a piecework basis, such as through royalties, is counterproductive.

Strategies for change

Change thinking

„Talking about “intellectual property” implies an association with physical property. Instead, it is better to talk about monopolies granted by governments, for example “monopoly privilege”, says Martin. Rather than talk of intellectual property in terms of property and trade, it should be talked about in terms of speech and its impediments. Controls over genetic information should be talked about in terms of public health and social welfare rather than property.

Expose the costs

It can cost a lot to set up and operate a system of intellectual property. There is a need for research to calculate and expose these costs as well as the transfers of money between different groups and countries.

Reproduce protected works

From the point of view of intellectual property, this is called “piracy.” This happens every day when people photocopy copyrighted articles, tape copyrighted music, or duplicate copyrighted software. It is precisely because illegal copying is so easy and so common that big governments and corporations have mounted offensives to promote intellectual property rights.

Illegal copying is not a very good strategy against intellectual property, any more than stealing goods is a way to challenge ownership of physical property. Theft of any sort implicitly accepts the existing system of ownership. By trying to hide the copying and avoiding penalties, the copiers appear to accept the legitimacy of the system.

Openly refuse to cooperate with intellectual property

This is far more powerful than illicit copying. The methods of nonviolent action can be used here, including noncooperation, boycotts and setting up alternative institutions.

Something like that is already occurring. Because photocopying of copyrighted works is so common, there is seldom any attempt to enforce the law against small violators — to do so would alienate too many people. Copyright authorities therefore seek other means of collecting revenues from intellectual property, such as payments by institutions based on library copies.

Promote non-owned information

A good example is public domain software, which is computer software that is made available free to anyone who wants it. A suitable alternative to copyright is shareright. The Free Software Foundation has come up with another approach, called “copyleft.” Typically copyrights take away freedoms; copyleft preserves them. It is a legal instrument that requires those who pass on a program to include the rights to use, modify, and redistribute the code; the code and the freedoms become legally inseparable.” Until copyright is eliminated or obsolete, innovations such as copyleft are necessary to avoid exploitation of those who want to make their work available to others.

Develop principles to deal with credit for intellectual work

We have to recognise that intellectual work is inevitably a collective process. No one has totally original ideas: ideas are always built on the earlier contributions of othersFurthermore, culture — which makes ideas possible — is built not just on intellectual contributions but also on practical and material contributions, including the rearing of families and construction of buildings. Intellectual property is theft, sometimes in part from an individual creator but always from society as a whole.

Martin, Brian. Information Liberation.  Against intellectual property, chapter 3. London: Freedom Press, 1998

One thought on “ELNM Topic 13: The Author vs the Information Society

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