Web Development and Intellectual Property


I have worked as a web developer and a computer enthusiast for most of my life. The ability to harness a machine’s memory, where bits of data can be stored and retrieved at later time, always amazed me. It’s invention and production unlocked many doors which were previously unavailable: we are now able to build interfaces with digital devices and both create networks of those communications, most notably via the internet, and also remember user’s choices, allowing them to customize and easily alter their own environment.

Given the current economic capital structure and the actual rate of savings in society, not the savings rate coerced and manipulated by central planners like the Federal Reserve, we could see unlimited potential built on this basic concept. Rooms in our household which had interfaces with our phones or a wall panel or even a voice activation device could store and retrieve lighting settings or security settings. You could choose to have a low lighting default setting applied to the entire house for evenings where you want to relax. Your house, or areas you choose, would switch into a predefined light level: your television and stereo equipment would be switched from the offline and non-power utilizing position to the on and ready to play your favorite television show position, and non frequently utilized lights would be turned off, leaving a small night light or other low-light source to lead your passage in those areas. Another setting would be for your departure, possibly on a timer given your usual work habits, and another still would be set to high output for entertaining guests or having dinner. Security settings could be customized to different times and presets. The possibilities and the future of the microprocessor is already an unprecedented leap in mankind’s abilities. Consider also the potential cost efficiency and environmental savings accrued just by setting defaults for commonly left on but unused lights.

It’s a Jetson’s world we live in today. Think of all the things accessible to us today and compare it to just 100 years ago. We have a network of communication and information accessible at any hour of any day accessible to almost everyone. Never before has this potential of sharing existed, as bits of data can be replicated and copied over and over again with barely any cost and to almost everyone in an instant. Sharing important works of art and philosophy and other works that can be copied, so-called “intellectual property”, could unlock the entire world to a hitherto inaccessible wealth of knowledge.

Intellectual property rights, which is the claim that people who write something or their publishers have the ability to force people to stop using these ideas in similar but generally different ways, are actually an attack on real and valid property rights. They forbid people in some situations from using things they own, i.e. claiming their own property rights. For instance, if I write a poem and say that no one else may make a copy of it or post it anywhere else online other than my web site, I must necessarily demand that no one else may use their computer in a way that it is entirely capable of working via mouse motions and data memory/storage. I am saying that they are forbidden from using their own pen and their own paper and their own ink/table/desk/chair/and whatever else they own themselves. In effect, I am restricting their use of their own labor and means of production.

I can’t imagine the catastrophe this would be in the web world. Copying other people’s ideas and emulating them and improving on them is the way we build a better web. Much of my time is spent reading articles about ways to develop web pages and dedicated to learning the positives and negatives of different methodologies. Code snippets written by other authors are read, copied, and modified to suit the special cases I’m working on. Many authors ask that certain, commented lines of code appear next to the functional code, and that is respected for the same reasons that plagiarism is not tolerated in the academic circles, but heavily modified code usually ends up not looking anything like the author’s initial work!

I build upon the work of others every day, and I hope that my contributions have also benefited others who have read them. It would make me incredibly happy to know that someone copied something I wrote and improved on it; I consider it the highest form of flattery. Throughout history, it is the case that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and who are around us; the past labor of those who are both long passed away and still living that we have the extensive capital structure we have in place: the factories and tools and means of changing resources from natural into usable exist today because of the toil of past generations. In the same way that sharing code and innovating in the web world benefits us all, and I’ve seen some pretty amazing changes in the way we build web pages today still even using the same or similar tools as we were using back in 2000, sharing our resources and cooperating in the market economy benefits us all.

The problem is that intellectual property laws are invalid claims of property ownership. You cannot claim to have ownership over the minds of others, forcing them to alter their perception and the use of their own actions and property. Yet, IP law claims to do this: that people cannot use an idea even if they know about it. What if the “owner” of the idea of the design of the table had disallowed anyone else from making any variations of his table? He would be able to force competitors from the market, making certain that he could make cheap tables and charge high prices. IP laws very often create aggressive competitors. Large companies threaten to use massive legal force by making it illegal to use their ideas or design in devices. Competition and innovation declines.

Consider the scenario of a star trek-like food replicator. This is an entirely false scenario, but it is helpful to us in understanding the effects of IP. This device would all but eliminate the mass food production agencies, leaving only specialized, home grown and organic organizations to compete in the food production market. All other needs could be met by a machine which could instantly change previously natural resources (e.g. whatever power we put in to the machine) into a warm meal. Lasagna, soups, fresh fruits and vegetables, imagine if nothing was out of the reach of it’s replication, or copying, ability. As a concept, it is not at all much different than copying bits of data such as e-books or videos or .pdf files or whatever. This machine could instantly eliminate world hunger.

Imagine now that no one is allowed to actually build it because the owner claims “property” on the idea. He sells one unit, which is reverse engineered. Everyone now knows how to build one, but no one may actually build it because of the claim of intellectual property. The people forbidden from acting on their own merit and capital lose out on the possibility of having a device which could make their inaccessibility to food a thing of the past. Imagine further that it was not the machine which was patented, but the food “recipes”. The person who programmed an apple demands that you not share your capacity to replicate apples with your neighbors, and that you only make 5 of them per day. He is keeping you from increasing the supply of apples even though your machine that you bought is capable of making as many apples as you want to.

This all imposes an artificial scarcity on people. Absent using force to stop people from using an idea, millions more people would have been able to have food. With all this obvious detriment, why would anyone support intellectual property? If, absent IP laws, people anywhere with a computer could download an entire library of books, larger than they could ever read in their lifetime, and their means of action could be expanded that much more, whatever the supply whether it be food, water, knowledge, houses, etc, who could possibly be against such a thing?

Well, the answer is those who benefit from the monopoly they maintain via IP. In the case of the food machine, it’s the inventor. It’s also those who would have had to find work elsewhere and possibly retrain themselves: the employees of current food production companies. It’s also the company who is finally going to bargain with the inventor so they can patent it and produce the food machine as slowly and at whatever quality they wish to. Potential competitors who might be able to produce it faster or better are effectively eliminated or kept from advancing.

Imagine if you were banned from observing and improving upon the actions of others while you were growing up. You would see something and try to emulate the action in monkey see-monkey do style only to be told that you couldn’t do that because the “owner” of the action would sue you. What’s more is when you copy something, you do not restrict the original owner from doing whatever they want. They can still sell their object or perform their actions, they just can’t stop you from performing your own action.

The recent bill in the Senate, SOPA, was an online piracy act. It was meant to shut down any web sites who allowed their users to post “copyrighted” content. An entire site like Wikipedia or Facebook could be shut down just because a user put up a picture they found on another site. Further, it targeted any sites who link to other sites with so-called pirated content. It could be used to attack Google or other search companies who compile lists of sites / site contents. This logical outcome of a war against copying, otherwise known as replication or emulation, is a complete destruction of the web itself.

And this makes sense. The internet is a network of sharing and collaboration. IP law is antithetical to sharing. Until the premise of intellectual property is questioned and explored and found to be an invalid claim of property ownership, we risk the demise of such an amazing tool.

Of course, defrauding is different and still subject to valid property laws, as are contractual obligations. If an employee signs a contract saying he will not spread secrets and yet does so, the company has every right to sue the employee. It has no ability to force other people, now knowledgeable about the idea, not to act on it.

Online piracy is not a violent action as it’s name implies. Real pirates take boats and gold and other treasures away from their owner to leave them without those objects; while online piracy increases the amount of data available to everyone.

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