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Why the term 'intellectual property' is a seductive mirage

By Richard M. Stallman on October 27, 2004 (8:00:00 AM)

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<ed by cp 10.27> It has become fashionable to describe copyright, patents, and trademarks as "intellectual property." This fashion did not arise by accident -- the term systematically distorts and confuses these issues. Anyone wishing to think clearly about any of these laws would do well to resist it.

One effect of the term is a bias that is not hard to see: It suggests thinking about copyright, patents and trademarks by analogy, with property rights for physical objects. (This analogy is at odds with the legal philosophies of copyright law, of patent law, and of trademark law, but only specialists know that.) These laws are, in fact, not much like physical property law, but use of this term leads legislators to change them to be more so. Since that is the change desired by the companies that exercise copyright, patent, and trademark powers, these companies have worked to make the term fashionable.

Is the term 'intellectual property' a fad?

According to Professor Mark Lemley, now of the Stanford University School of Law, the widespread use of the term "intellectual property" is a fad that followed the 1967 founding of the World "Intellectual Property" Organization, and only became really common in the past few years. (WIPO is formally a UN organization, but in fact it represents the interests of the holders of copyrights, patents, and trademarks.)

Those who would prefer to judge these issues on their merits should reject a biased term for them. Many have asked me to propose some other name for the category -- or have proposed alternatives themselves. Suggestions include IMPs, for Imposed Monopoly Privileges, and GOLEMs, for Government-Originated Legally Enforced Monopolies. Some speak of "exclusive rights regimes," but this means referring to restrictions as rights, which is doublethink, too.

But it is a mistake to replace "intellectual property" with any other term. A different name could eliminate the bias but won't address the term's deeper problem: overgeneralization. There is no such unified thing as "intellectual property." It is a mirage, which appears to have a coherent existence only because the term suggests it does.

The term "intellectual property" operates as a catch-all to lump together disparate laws. Non-lawyers who hear the term "intellectual property" applied to these various laws tend to assume they are instances of a common principle, and that they function similarly. Nothing could be further from the case.

These laws originated separately, evolved differently, cover different activities, have different rules, and raise different public policy issues. Copyright law was designed to promote authorship and art, and covers the details of a work of authorship or art. Patent law was intended to encourage publication of ideas, at the price of finite monopolies over these ideas -- a price that may be worth paying in some fields and not in others. Trademark law was not intended to promote any business activity but simply to enable buyers to know what they are buying; however, legislators under the influence of "intellectual property" have turned it into a scheme that provides incentives for advertising (without asking the public if we want more advertising).

All IP laws are different in every detail

Since these laws developed independently, they are different in every detail as well as in their basic purposes and methods. Thus, if you learn some fact about copyright law, you had better assume that patent law is different. You'll rarely go wrong that way!

Laymen are not alone in getting confused by this term. I regularly find that experts on patent law, copyright law, and trademark law -- even law professors who teach these subjects -- have been lured by the seductiveness of the term "intellectual property" into general statements that conflict with the facts they know. The term distracts them from using their own knowledge.

People often say "intellectual property" when they really mean some other category, larger or smaller than "intellectual property." For instance, rich countries impose laws on poor countries to squeeze money out of them. These laws often fit the category of "intellectual property" -- so people who question the fairness of these laws often use that label, even though it does not really fit. That can lead to incorrect statements and unclear thinking. For this subject, I recommend using a term such as "legislative colonization" that focuses on the central aspect of the subject, rather than the term "intellectual property." For other subjects, the term that describes the subject would be different.

The term "intellectual property" also leads to simplistic thinking. It leads people to focus on the meager commonality in form of these disparate laws, which is that they create special powers that can be bought and sold, and ignore their substance -- the specific restrictions each of them places on the public, and the consequences that result.

At such a broad scale, people can't even see the specific public policy issues raised by copyright law, or the different issues raised by patent law, or any of the others. These issues arise from the specifics, precisely what the term "intellectual property" encourages people to ignore.

Why generalized opinions about IP are foolish

For instance, one issue relating to copyright law is whether music sharing should be allowed. Patent law has nothing to do with this. But patent law raises the issue of whether poor countries should be allowed to produce life-saving drugs and sell them cheaply to save lives. Copyright law has nothing to do with that. Neither of these issues is just an economic issue, and anyone looking at them in the shallow economic perspectives of overgeneralization can't grasp them. Thus, any opinion about "the issue of intellectual property" is almost surely foolish. If you think it is one issue, you will tend to consider only opinions that treat all these laws the same. Whichever one you pick, it won't make any sense.

If you want to think clearly about the issues raised by patents, or copyrights, or trademarks, or even learn what these laws say, the first step is to forget the idea of lumping them together, and treat them as separate topics. If you want to write articles that inform the public and encourage clear thinking, treat each of these laws separately; don't suggest generalizing about them.

And when it comes to reforming WIPO, among other things, let's call for changing its name.

Copyright 2004 Richard Stallman. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide without royalty in any medium provided this notice is preserved.

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on Why the term 'intellectual property' is a seductive mirage

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Software patents are bad because I say so

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 02:49 AM
Patent law was intended to encourage publication of ideas, at the price of finite monopolies over these ideas -- a price that may be worth paying in some fields and not in others.

And we all know of a field in which finite monopolies are not worth the price, regardless of the scope of the monopoly, or the complexity of the idea patented because software should be Free.

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Re:Software patents are bad because I say so

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 03:05 AM
Huh?

Care to make some sense?

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Re:Software patents are bad because I say so

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 03:11 AM
Exactly.

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Re:Software patents are bad because I say so

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 03:17 AM
An excellent article!
Most of the time when companies speak to the press about others “stealing their Intellectual Property” there is no indication if they are referring to copyright, Trademark, patent, or a whimsical feeling that they thought of something first. Using a loaded word like property is counter productive to the whole discussion of issues that should be treated separately.

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Re:Software patents are bad because I say so

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 30, 2004 05:57 PM
Are You Uselessly Trolling?

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2002: Adam Smith and *Intellectual monopoly*

Posted by: David Mohring on October 28, 2004 03:24 AM
I vote for the term Intellectual monopoly.

From two years ago in <A HREF="http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?cid=4467943&sid=42546" title="slashdot.org">Adam Smith and *Intellectual monopoly*</a slashdot.org>
The next section is very IMPORTANT.

Monopolists can preserve their favorable position only if
the government prevents potential competitors from entering the
monopolized activity:





The exclusive privileges of corporations, statutes of apprenticeship,
and all those laws which restrain, in particular employments, the
competition to a smaller number than might otherwise go into them, have
the same tendency...They...may frequently, for ages together, and in
whole classes of employments, keep up the market price of particular
commodities above the natural price, and maintain both the wages of the
labour and the profits of the stock employed about them somewhat above
their natural rate.



Such enhancements of the market price may last as long as the regulations of police which give occasion to them.
(pp. 61-2)



In fact, the term "intellectual property" is a misnomer, a more correct term would be intellectual monopoly.
Patents, Copyrights and even Trademarks are a government granted
monopoly, they do not occur naturally. That does not mean that they are
a bad thing per-say, but their use should be dictated by the benefit to
socitety in general, with approprate limits so their use cannot be
abused.
These statutes give the power that the ol' Mercantile laws
gave to those monopolies. There is no true effective choice in the
market. Companies like Microsoft are sustaining their dominate position
in the markerplace by using a state-constructed and granted monopoly,
which gives Microsoft the <A HREF="http://www.microsoft.com/legal/protocols/" title="microsoft.com">monopoly over its protocols</a microsoft.com>, effectively just as restrictive as the East India Trading Company trading zone monopoly of the Orient,

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Re:2002: Adam Smith and *Intellectual monopoly*

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 08:12 AM
"Per se," not "per-say."

Geeze.

http://www.spreadfirefox.com/?q=affiliates&id=958&amp<nobr>;<wbr></nobr> t=1

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Re:2002: Adam Smith and *Intellectual monopoly*

Posted by: David Mohring on October 28, 2004 08:19 AM
"Geeze"?


<A HREF="http://www.langmaker.com/db/eng_geeze.htm" title="langmaker.com">Definition To engage in an activity typical of an older or retired person, esp. with a certain amount of relish</a langmaker.com>?

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Re:2002: Adam Smith and *Intellectual monopoly*

Posted by: Preston St. Pierre on October 28, 2004 09:11 AM
Excellent reply<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:)

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Re:2002: Adam Smith and *Intellectual monopoly*

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 08:36 PM
Copyright does not give an author a "monopoly" - any other author can produce the same work as long as they do not copy it.

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Re:2002: Adam Smith and *Intellectual monopoly*

Posted by: hanelyp on October 28, 2004 11:48 PM
Copyright grants a monopoly of such narrow scope as to be of little harm if automatically granted for a limited term. A monopoly over the reproduction of a specific work of art. It's when the term of copyright goes on and on...

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There is no such thing as "intelectual property"

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 05:04 AM
I completely agree that the term "intelectual property" is a misnomer and that the fields that it generally tends to cover are different and that calling it all by the same name causes even more confusion.

However, the exact reason why this term has been coined is actually to decieve the world that information can be property and that intelectual property as such exists at all. The term is a blindfold over the eyes of the society designed to make them believe that information can be owned.

But it cannot. Naturally, of course it leads to monopolies, of course they are state granted monopolies.

Intelectual property, or can be simply called an "information property" is a contradiction to itself. Information cannot be property and then, the name implies that it can.

And i think that all of those IP laws hold that one thing in common (undependant on differences), they are unethical laws of allowing monopoly over information in order to make it what it naturally can't be, a property.

Thank you
Danijel Orsolic

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Re:There is no such thing as "intelectual property

Posted by: Preston St. Pierre on October 28, 2004 09:14 AM
You *just* read an article on intellectual property. Not only that, but it says intellectual in the title when you reply.


I have to ask: How on earth did you spell it wrong?

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Intellectual property tax

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 05:31 AM
I posted elsewhere this morning that I think we should consider scaring the very people who are pushing the idea of "Intellectual Property" by pushing the idea that since (they claim) intellectual property is like real property, then the government should levy an "Intellectual Property" tax and have intellectual property tax assessors to set the official taxable value on the property.

I would say that the rate should be the same as for real properry.

Hey county tax boys, make all "intellectual property" be registered in an official propery registry. Assess property tax, treat it in every way like real property when it comes to transfer of title, title insurance, tax, etc.

Anyone think the spectre of this might have them claiming that "Intellectual Property" is not really like real property after all?

A Nony Mouse

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What happens when the taxman...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 09:38 AM
becomes hooked on the revenue generated? It's an interesting idea but I don't even want to see this get started, lest it becomes impossible to stop.

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Re:What happens when the taxman...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 08:35 PM
Neither do I actually.

In fact, I doubt we could get it started even if we wanted to. I think the big boys with money would find some way (perhaps greasy) to have "Intellectual Property" only really be like real property in ways which suit them. Kind of like they are doing at the moment.

A Nony Mouse

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Re:What happens when the taxman...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 08:44 PM
Actually, could this be refined?

What about a built in 18 year tax exemption from the date of creation? Then you can place the work in the public domain and avoid taxes all together, or you can have your "Intellectual Property" assessed and start paying your property taxes based on a percentage of the assessed value of your property.

Now, I am not even in favour of property taxes on real property much less "Intellectual Property" but then again I think "Intellectual Property" is an attempt to scam the public, however, if the big boys want to have their "Intellectual Property" then perhaps we should treat it that way. (At least for them?)

A Nony Mouse

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In The Year 2525...

Posted by: llanitedave on October 28, 2004 10:24 PM
"Everything you think, do and say


Is in the bill you get today."

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Re:In The Year 2525...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 11:22 PM
Oh Man,

Zager and Evans. Try this: If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet.

A Nony Mouse

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Re:In The Year 2525...

Posted by: ITeacher on October 29, 2004 01:52 AM
Hey, I'm the Taxman!

While I dislike paying taxes myself, I can also imagine how different our infrastructure system would be if we didn't pay something to a central organization such as the government. Think about the consequences if road conditions were the responsibility of the person whose property the road crossed.

I can just see driving from a fully paved road with enclosed storm drains to a dirt road with no ditches or shoulders and raw sewage at the roadside to a tarmac road with formed ditches...

It's all right to assume your own personal responsibility, but too many people assume no responsibility.

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You know...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 10:53 AM
...I was kinda hoping to come here to read actual news, seeing as this site bills itself as an "online newspaper". Instead I find an <A HREF="http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/words-to-avoid.html#IntellectualProperty" title="gnu.org">almost word-for-word duplicate</a gnu.org> of a section of the GNU website. No offense to Mr. Stallman's views, but they simply aren't news.

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It's relevant to what's going on

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 11:24 AM
and raising awarness is important. Think of the new readers who havn't been exposed to this before. If it's old news to you, you should just skip over the article instead of complaining about it.

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Re:You know...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 08, 2004 02:29 AM
This is a "News and Trends" site. The URL starts with trends.
Don't be so silly.

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Austalian "IP" Law

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 02:25 PM
I was reading this wondering how my government would feel on the topic (as government has feeling!) anyway I decided to search the federal site and found links to two committees, <A HREF="http://www.acip.gov.au/" title="acip.gov.au">http://www.acip.gov.au/</a acip.gov.au> and <A HREF="http://www.ipcr.gov.au/" title="ipcr.gov.au">http://www.ipcr.gov.au/</a ipcr.gov.au> I'm not very happy, it appears the members of federal parliment want to use the term, and I can't help but wonder why.

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In favour of IP rights

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 08:38 PM
"Intellectual property" is so-called because it gives ownership (property) rights to products of the human intellect.

If I write a book, come up with an invention or develop a brand, why should I share that with someone else? I may have spent time and money in development of the work/invention/brand - if I am not entitled to benefit from it, why should I bother?

IP rights give individuals and companies the incentive to innovate.

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Re:In favour of IP rights

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 10:08 PM
IP rights give individuals and companies the incentive to NOT innovate (they can get rich with past innovations).

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Re:In favour of IP rights

Posted by: llanitedave on October 28, 2004 10:30 PM
If you reread the article, I think you'll find that Stallman did acknowledge that patents, copyrights, etc. are at times appropriate and valid. However, that doesn't make them "Property". Real property is owned forever until explicitly transfered. The law limits patents and copyrights to specific time periods. Therefore, they aren't truly "property" even in a legal sense. What they are is a writ of exclusive usage -- a monopoly.

And sometimes, they simply are not beneficial to society.

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Re:In favour of IP rights

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 10:45 PM
Why bother? maybe because you have something to say<nobr> <wbr></nobr>.. why did you reply to the article? do you think you have to be paid for everything you do? I am not even saying that it is bad to be paid to write a book or something. But is is a just a silly game to assume that ANY of these laws really make us more productive, creative, or smarter.

I would work and solve problems and create simply because it is built into my very being.

Why should you write? Why not keep it to yourself? Someone else will do what you don't<nobr> <wbr></nobr>.. there is a whole human race aspiring to be more than they are and it is not simply for money. Create and innovate and improve yourself and the human race, enrich each other and stop worrying about getting rich. If you do what you like and do it well, you will be rewarded with money and more.

people need to stop thinking like the stereotypical lawyer and salesmen.

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Re:In favour of IP rights

Posted by: WarPengi on October 28, 2004 11:31 PM
Right, and people need to stop thinking like capitalists that the only motive worth protecting is the profit motive.

There was a thriving, growing, creative, productive population of human beings long before capitalism and corporatism became the cause 'du jour' and there will be one when long after capitalism recedes to being just another tool.

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Re:In favour of IP rights

Posted by: ITeacher on October 29, 2004 02:38 AM
Yep, and that "thriving, growing, creative, productive population" had to deal with plague, cholera, smallpox, open sewers, dirt floors, grass (excuse me: "thatch") roofs, manual cultivation of crops, no electricity, no cars, a constant threat of invasion, an aristocracy who believed that they ruled by the will of God and could take what they wanted when they wanted it and, throughout recorded history, cold beer only in winter.

You go on back...I'm staying right here!

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Re:In favour of IP rights

Posted by: WarPengi on October 29, 2004 05:00 AM
And capitalism changed all that right? LOL:~)

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Re:In favour of IP rights

Posted by: ITeacher on October 29, 2004 08:24 PM
The only thing that changed was the people with the money...and the ability to get cold beer year-round!

History, of course, reveals that the only thing that ever changes with the introduction of any new economic system is who has the money...

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Re:In favour of IP rights

Posted by: gustaw on October 29, 2004 07:01 AM
AIDS, Ebola, Cholesterolemia, Diabetes, Acid Rain, Pollution (Exxon Valdez), any guy elected President of a powerful country styling himself as "God Appointed Emperor of the Universe". Not to mention invasions... and coups.

Dejà vu all over again.

Gustavo
Haedo
Third World

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Re:In favour of IP rights

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 29, 2004 07:35 AM
Actually, I find it amazing that science persists *despite* capitalism.

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Re:In favour of IP rights

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 29, 2004 12:35 AM

"Intellectual property" is so-called because it gives ownership (property) rights to products of the human intellect.



No, it gives no property rights. For example copyright gives you right to make copies of some information (more precisely it forbids others to do it). But the original information and the copy are still _one thing_. You can't do this with your properties so such a right would make no sense for them.

It's a difference when a hundred of people have each their own car, or they share one car. For information, there is no such difference -- although it's in fact shared they can use it as if it wasn't.

You see, information does not behave like a property at all. Well, this probably won't stop you from trolling...

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"Intellectual property" is unnatural

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 28, 2004 10:05 PM
The more I hear the term intellectual property the more I am disgusted with it. It seems to be a golden calf that people have made to worship, and to get rich quick at the cost of freedom and liberty. People want to be self righteous about it and say "if I come up with this idea or work, I should be able to profit from all my hard work" etc<nobr> <wbr></nobr>.. Well what about others who come up with the same idea on their own? Are they locked out because someone beat them to the patent office?

I firmly believe that humans are enough alike that several thousands of people can come up with the same idea at the same time given similar environment and circumstances. The pythagorean theorum was derived in most major cultures independantly but most people think that it was only a greek invention.

As far as stimulating innovation, I don't think laws really can improve intellect. I believe that necessity is the mother of invention, not the government. If someone needs something bad enough they will think up a solution despite how much money they have thrown at them.

Problem solving is real work and a good skill to have. It will be always be rewarded because there are always problems to solve. Claiming that an idea is unique to yourself is arrogant and is like a kid licking a piece of candy, even if he won't eat it, just to stake a claim and make sure no one else will.

I remember when we just start to to unravel the genome there was talk of patenting it or parts of it! Greed and arrogance has really reached a new high when we try to "buy and sell the very souls of men"

If you want an idea or thought to be your own, don't tell anybody<nobr> <wbr></nobr>.. but then again wait and see<nobr> <wbr></nobr>.. someone else will come up with the same idea soon<nobr> <wbr></nobr>.. you can be sure of it.

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Intellectual property

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 29, 2004 12:09 AM
Some greedy corporations are using the term "Intellectual Property" as equivalent to "What's yours is mine"

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zealot! communist! fanatic!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 29, 2004 01:08 AM
You are an enemy of the American way! You are a commie! You are anti-corporation! You are anti-capitalist! You are anti-red-white-n-blue! You hate pickup trucks and gun racks! You are anti-war! Anti-united-we-stand! Anti-let-freedom-ring! Anti-flag! Anti-fast-food! Anti-we-bomb-whomever-we-want! Anti-single-thought!

Worse of all, you are a FREE SOFTWARE ZEALOT!

[collective gasp of horror...]

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Re:zealot! communist! fanatic!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 29, 2004 02:38 AM
You, on the other hand, are an idiot - and not funny.

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I am so deeply sorry

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 29, 2004 04:47 AM
I deeply apologize and I bow my head in shame<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-( the depth, brilliance and logic of your discourse has opened my eyes to my pathetic and lowly inadequacy. thank you for pointing me towards the light!

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Re:I am so deeply sorry

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 30, 2004 01:12 AM
... says Anonymous Reader to Anonymous Reader after Anonymous Reader made a scathing reply to Anonymous Reader's sarcastic post.

Multiple Personality Disorder is a fun thing to watch (when it's not me).

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I think the best name for them is royalty

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 29, 2004 02:04 AM
The older name for IP was Royalties. Royalties has a clear message: The knowledge someone adds up to a society belongs to the society, because this knowledge arises thanks to the efforts of thousands of years of acumulation of other knowledges in this society that the individual has taken for free.
But the society, in order to help the knowledge arise gives a royalty, a priviledge, for those who invent something knew.

This Priviledge must, in any case, be very limited. Enough for the knowledge to arise but not more, because it is a priviledge and therefore something undesirable.

Hope we start back talking about Royalities.

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Stop writing or thinking about this article!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 29, 2004 09:40 AM
Stop writing or thinking about this article immediately!

I can not sit by and watch people use ideas that I had previously thought of. The author of this article and those posting comments have clearly misappropriated my intellectual property. As my friends will attest, I have on many occasions expressed ideas on which this article and postings are clearly based!

Anyone wishing to continue writing or thinking about this topic should contact me for information about the attractive licensing options available.

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An excellent article!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 29, 2004 09:48 AM
Most of the time when companies speak to the press about others “stealing their Intellectual Property” there is no indication if they are referring to copyright, Trademark, patent, or a whimsical feeling that they thought of something first. Using a loaded word like property is counter productive to the whole discussion of issues that should be treated separately.

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Are we heading for a new Dark Ages?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 29, 2004 04:13 PM
Is it just me, or does it seem all forms of logical rational thought are under attack? Political leaders denying reality is real but only peoples beliefs that matter. The downgrading, if not outlawing, of education in mathematics and the sciences. This overextended definition of IP is just a symptom of a much bigger problem.

Comments please.

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stop using the term "proprietory s/ware"

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 29, 2004 07:08 PM
The FSF isn't doing itself any favours using the term "proprietary software" to refer to the complement of free software.

Come on RMS, lead the charge and use some other term.

See:
Lock In Software
http://www.members.optusnet.com.au/brendanscott/p<nobr>a<wbr></nobr> pers/lockinsoftwarebrendanscott.html

   

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Re:stop using the term "proprietory s/ware"

Posted by: Preston St. Pierre on October 29, 2004 11:36 PM
I read your entire article, and I must say this:
To someone who believes software should have no owners (Stallman), saying "proprietary" software is quite correct. He is simply referring to software in which the alleged proprieters enforce their rights in exchange for some sort of compensation.

Sure, there are loopholes as you point out. These loopholes, however, are simply with the *technical* definition and not with the real definition. The technical definition is only useful if you are a lawyer, and no lawyer will ever have to argue that "Yes, this is proprietary software" because as you said, proprietary is a largely imprecise way of rating software and so the courts wouldn't accept it.

Long story short: It works, and it works, and it works. Proprietary software does exist.

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Why the term 'intellectual property' is a seductiv

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 29, 2004 08:10 PM
I wholeheartedly agree. I have never liked the term copyright either. I tell everyone here in Puerto Rico to use the term "author rights", so that everyone remembers that the real important person is the creator, the author, and not the copyright holder. which, in the case of music is usually a greedy publisher who obtain the rights of composers through scams. As a music publisher who cannot get of the ground and the son of a composer who wrote great music but was hardly paid by the publishers to whom he assigned his songs or the record companies that used his songs I know the subject.

Thank you for your article.

Rafael Venegas
http://www.gvenegas.com

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IP just like all commercial property

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 30, 2004 05:04 AM
There is another generalization overlooked even in Stallman's article. We should not confuse personal possession (like my toothbrush) with commercial property, including: oil tankers, copyright, railway lines, factories, patents, exclusive government contracts and so on. I own a toothbrush, yet it has no commercial value because only I would like to use it to brush my teeth and no one wants to buy a used toothbrush. A railway line has commercial value, but only as long as it is useful for the railway company. For example, in the 19th century railways were being built across the United States for large amounts of capital. One railway line connecting the west to the east would be very valuable and the company would have a monopoly. However, this didn't happen. Other capitalists started building competing lines - some of them were built only for their "nuisance value" to hinder other companies. Yet, this didn't go on forever. We only need so many railway lines, and each additional line would reduce the commercial value of all the lines no matter how "useful" each line was in itself. (You can read up on these heady capitalist days in Matthew Josephson's The Robber Barons (1934) to learn more about such tactics.)

The same goes for Microsoft Word. Word is a very profitable program for Microsoft, their most profitable in fact. The reason Word is so commercially valuable is because they are able to limit the amount of "piracy" and the number of competitive programs (by making it easier to use/install on their near-universal operating system, and by encouraging the use of a propriertary file standard). Without these limitations, Word would be commercially valueless no matter how useful to individual computer users or how many people-hours were spent in producing the program. (We'll see what happens to the commercial value of Word as the free software word processing program OpenOffice.org begins to become more popular.)

So here is my generalization: capitalist enterprises rely on limitations on open and reckless competition in order to remain profitable, and they will do anything to maintain profitability: patents (GIF patent), copyrights (Microsoft), collusion (international oil corporations), international treaties (World Trade Organization), exclusive government contracts (Halliburton and Bechtel in Iraq reconstruction), and so on.

But I suppose to criticize the entire capitalist system is a bit beyond this one article<nobr> <wbr></nobr>;)

-- Herb v.d.Dool

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