IP, Friend or Foe

Should we have a right to benefit from our labor regardless of the form it takes? Be that labor a tangible item like a painting that hangs on a wall or a book that rests on a shelf should it be attributed to the creator and should the creator have the right to decide the future of that work? Should the creator be compensated for the current work and all future authorized derivative works from their labor?

Intellectual Property right is a hot topic of debate in the digital age. I find it interesting the debate was not as fierce in the non digital age. What is it about digital content as opposed to tangible content that causes others to feel it should be free and open? Is a thought, idea, or work less valuable or less important when conveyed in  digital media as opposed to tangible media? Why would we ever state you have less rights in a digital environment than in a physical environment? Is digital less valuable to the contributor? Does it require less labor and less thought to create online as opposed to in print?

Why IP rights matter

The Washington Times piece, Why IP Rights Matter, raises an interesting thought on theft of tangible items vs theft of non tangible items. You would never walk into a store and take a CD that you did not pay for but we feel no remorse in lifting a song from the internet. However, theft of IP appears to be on the rise  as noted in the Bureau of Justice report,

  •  IP theft-related investigations resulting in referral for prosecution  increased 26% from 1994-2002.
  • Conviction rate for IP related offenses was 88% in 2002

Would a company or individual create if they receive no benefit from the creation? In his piece, What Compels Writers to Write Richard Norquist fell back on thoughts from George Orwell who stated 4 reasons to write:

  1. Sheer Egoism
  2. Aesthetic Enthusiasm
  3. Historical Impulse
  4. Political Purpose

Without IP and Copyright protection the author’s work could pass through history without their name attached. If your work does not feed your soul would you continue to pursue it?

Where can you go wrong with Fair Use? It is not correct to assume you can do what ever you want to with content if it is for an educational purpose.  You have to step back and ask the question, “are you costing the original copyright holder money?”  If you take a print book and scan the book creating a digital version of the text and use that as your teaching material instead of buying either the digital version or the print version for each student you are indeed costing the original holder money, assuming the work is copyright protected. If you take a passage from a text to teach a literary element you are using the element for educational purpose and could be within Fair Use. The area is a grey area and a general rule of thumb is to ask does it impact the creator? If in doubt, ask. Contact the copyright holder, explain what you want to do and ask for permission. NPR had an interesting interview with a Dad wanting to create a derivative version of Goodnight Moon, The interview is Goodnight Moon Spinoff takes a look at Fair Use at a very high level.

In summary, IP is friend not foe. IP should apply to digital just as it does to tangible. After all, there is value in thought.

3 thoughts on “IP, Friend or Foe”

  1. I mostly agree, though you have a false dichotomy in the sense that you aren’t allowing for (or are allowing very little for) the possibility of IP protections for attribution without any of the sometimes onerous—and almost always byzantine—policies of traditional IP legislation.

    Also, you ask: ” Is digital less valuable to the contributor? Does it require less labor and less thought to create online as opposed to in print?” Answers: sometimes and sometimes…in the latter case, sometimes considerably (since you are mixing two very different things together).

    In some areas piracy is most definitely not on the rise…particularly with music. Though it remains a significant problem.

    The “if in doubt, ask” undermines the very proposition and purpose of Fair Use. That’s operating from a position of fear. Your example using a “passage” is almost certainly always going to be Fair Use…not to be conflated with using a whole or major part of a longer text.

    Economic harm is just one of four factors, and the weight of that factor will vary greatly depending on the context of the use and user. Some would say that the abrogation of Fair Use rights is already well under way because this factor is often given more weight than it is worth. Profit for creators isn’t actually the purpose of copyright after all…it is one implied and assumed purpose in service of something greater…for which there is a strong argument that we’ve evolved into a system that actually does less and less for actual creators.

    Finally, nice link to the NPR story.

  2. Martha,

    Fascinating post. I wanted to make sure to read your post because I knew you would have a unique perspective on IP.

    You ask the question about why IP is such a topic if discussion in the digital age. The most obvious answer is that digital information is so much easier to access than print information. In a span of five minutes, I can access and legally (or illegally) purchase my top 15 favorite movies while sitting in my living room in my pajamas. Meanwhile, to purchase these 15 movies “in print,” I must drive to the movie store (if one even still is open close by), walk around, grab the items, go to the cashier, purchase the item, and go home. Talk about a much bigger hassle!

    But, I think there is something bigger psychologically going on here. I wonder if users view digital things as less real than physical things; thus, the consequences of stealing of digital thing appears smaller than stealing a physical thing. You likely know that there is a psychological difference between buying something via credit card and buying something via cash. Indeed, in Prelec and Simester’s (2001) study (http://web.mit.edu/simester/Public/Papers/Alwaysleavehome.pdf), Prelec and Simester found that people are willing to spend up to twice as much for the same item via credit card than via cash. Credit card money just seems less “real” than bills.

    That’s why I wonder if IP norms will need to change. Not because they are “wrong” but because they are no longer psychologically relevant. Until people view the digital as the same as the physical, I suspect people will continue to challenge IP.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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