When I began law school, the term for copyright protection was a mere life-of-author plus 50 years. The term for patents was 17 years. By the time I graduated, copyright terms were extended an additional 20 years, and patents an additional 3. The ongoing efforts by industry to extend their monopolies enjoys very little opposition among the political elites of both parties for the same reason that true opposition to the ongoing illegal military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan is not reflected in any real political action. The economic stakes are too great, and the politicians who make the laws are corrupted by the vast sums of money now flowing from corporations to ensure the status quo.1 Eisenhower warned us of the emergence of the “military-industrial complex” that would perpetuate conflicts at all costs in order to reap their economic rewards. There is now a vast IP-industrial complex, permeating both the corridors of political power, and the academy. To question the ethics of IP, to argue for its abolition even buttressed by overwhelming evidence for its inefficacy and corruption, or to do anything but debate around the edges for some bland “reform,” will earn you their wrath. And why not? Should we be surprised? Moneyed interests with political influence have always won the day even against reason and evidence.
When the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1995 was passed, Mary Bono stated that her dead husband believed that copyrights should be permanent. The act has since been called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act due to the intense lobbying efforts of Disney, which faced the horrific prospect of Mickey Mouse lapsing into the public domain, where just anyone could use his image for any creative purpose. This is of course incredibly ironic given that Disney made a fortune recycling content from such sources as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, appropriating these free works, and churning out sure-fire, field-tested hits in cartoon form… now with copyright protection for Disney. The patent extensions and exceptions that are seemingly continually debated and considered in the halls of Congress are often the result of frantic lobbying by pharmaceutical companies and their lobbyists (like BIO and PhrMA), who face tragic stock losses every time one of their blockbuster drugs faces the inevitable prospect of lapsing into the public domain, and turning “generic.”
There is money, power, and almost unstoppable political influence built up on the side of the state-monopolists who support IP, so what chance do the few who publicly challenge this system stand to bring some sanity to the economics of innovation by eliminating artificial, corrupting, and inefficient institutions like patents and copyright? Very little, in point of fact, and some of us have withstood the worst sort of dishonest attacks for trying. But there is some hope, and some efforts worth pursuing to alter the landscape. Specifically, we can ignore IP, undermine the IP-industrial complex at its roots, as producers and consumers. We can release all our works without IP protection (through copyleft, as imperfect as it is yet) and open source. My next book is being published under a creative commons license, by Bloomsbury Academic, which is now employing this new, open model. We have choices as consumers to use tools like Open Office instead of Word or Pages. We can jailbreak our i-devices. We can reappropriate our institutions and build an alternate economy unencumbered by IP, in which creators allow and encourage appropriation for-profit because they know it builds more wealth.
The IP-industrial complex is lining up to try to undo these alternatives, and they are scared stiff, warning innovators of all of the imagined pitfalls facing those who do not kowtow to the system. But civil disobedience, through collective rejection of an immoral and inefficient system, is one thing we can all begin to do now to help build a future of free markets and innovative freedom.
- As well as an entrenched and costly government bureaucracy (the PTO) and related academic institutions built to serve this bureaucracy (pumping out IP lawyers). [↩]
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