An article by noted author/blogger Cory Doctorow appeared in The Guardian recently. It concerned the "silly euphemism" of the term "intellectual property".
"...the phrase "intellectual property" is, at root, a dangerous euphemism that leads us to all sorts of faulty reasoning about knowledge....Fundamentally, the stuff we call "intellectual property" is just knowledge - ideas, words, tunes, blueprints, identifiers, secrets, databases. "
Speaking of faulty reasoning, this generalization is about as dangerous as it gets. There are actually at least two types of knowledge : factual knowledge (that which can be discerned by everyone using sensual observation or experimentation, such as the "knowledge" that the world is round), and creative knowledge ("knowing" works of art, literature, music, etc. that have been brought into the world through the creative work of one or more minds in collaboration). Words, identifiers, and databases are not the same thing as ideas, poems, tunes, novels, paintings. Factual knowledge can not and should not be owned. It would be ludicrous to say that one "owns" the fact that 2 +2 = 4. However, it's perfectly reasonable to say that one owns a song or a novel one has created, and calling this creation "intellectual property" is not only appropriate but accurate.
Mr. Doctorow goes on to say that intellectual property is not "inherently exclusive" whereas most "property", such as a house, can be made exclusive:
"If you trespass on my flat, I can throw you out (exclude you from my home). If you steal my car, I can take it back (exclude you from my car). But once you know my song, once you read my book, once you see my movie, it leaves my control. Short of a round of electroconvulsive therapy, I can't get you to un-know the sentences you've just read here."
While this may be true, it isn't a sound argument against using the term "intellectual property" to categorize works of creativity. Just because a work of fiction or a song can't be "un-known" doesn't mean a transcription of it can't be made legally exclusive. Knowing my song in your head isn't the same thing as owning a file or recording of my song. The "knowledge"of my song isn't what is being protected, but rather the licensed transcription (a CD recording, an mp3 file, a piece of sheet music, etc.).
Similarly, The Louvre can ban photography of it's famous paintings such as the Mona Lisa, but they can't prohibit anyone from memorizing the image, or even copying an imitation of it it by hand. And no one would argue that the original painting isn't property just because it can be viewed, memorized, or copied (I don't mean forgery that you later try to pass off as the original, just a personal copy).
I agree with Mr. Doctorow that we haven't nuanced the intellectual property language enough. There certainly should be uses of creative knowledge that require no license or payment from the user. For example, anyone should be allowed to sing my song from memory before their own audience without paying for that right. This is a transient experience, not a permanent transcription. It's the same thing as looking at the Mona Lisa, then leaving the museum with only the memory of the image-- something that can't be "un-known".
However, when it comes to the exchange of media containing the original content (the file, the CD, the photograph, the DVD, etc.) we should continue to protect the rights of creators and we should continue to call the contents of the medium "intellectual property" rather than invent further confusion.
copyright 2008 craig bickhardt