Monday Jan 26, 2009

Intellectual Privilege

Hobart at Sunrise

Speaking at conferences like linux.conf.au (where I delivered a keynote last Friday) and OSCON is great fun. It's challenging to speak to an audience that's so diverse that it includes both the creator of the Linux kernel and students who just discovered it exists. It's humbling to know that the intelligence and achievement in the audience dwarfs anything I've ever done. And I admit that sometimes it's frustrating that there's a requirement for political correctness!

There are political correctness landmines littering this domain. For example, using the terms "open source" and "free software" is often taken as an indication of either one's cluefulness or of one's affiliation to a particular world-view. Personally, I consider the two expressions complementary - open source communities collaborate on a free software commons - but there's rarely a chance to explain that before I speak.

An especially frustrating one is the expression "intellectual property". The term is used widely in the business and legal communities, and it becomes second nature to speak of patents, copyright, trademarks and trade secrets collectively in this way. The problem with doing so is that the expression is factually wrong, and a legion of open source developers (you know, the ones working on free software) take the use of the phrase "intellectual property" as a genetic marker for "clueless PHB-type" at best and "evil oppressor of geeks" at worst.

Why is it wrong? Well, none of those things is really "property". In particular, copyright and patents are temporary privileges granted to creative people to encourage them to make their work openly available to society. The "social contract" behind them is "we'll grant you a temporary monopoly on your work so you can profit from it; in return you'll turn it over to the commons at the end of a reasonable period so our know-how and culture can grow."

Using the term "intellectual property" is definitely a problem. It encourages a mindset that treats these temporary privileges as an absolute right. This leads to two harmful behaviours:

  • First, people get addicted to them as "property". They build business models that forget the privilege is temporary. They then press for longer and longer terms for the privilege without agreeing in return to any benefit for the commons and society.
  • Second, they forget that one day they'll need to turn the material over to the commons. Software patents in particular contain little, if anything, that will be of value to the commons - no code, no algorithms, really just a list of ways to detect infringement.

Working on the legacy of this sociopathy is the subject for another time, but I believe we need to change the way we talk about the subject. Both Lakoff and Lewis agree; the words we use to describe things change the way we perceive them. The term we use probably needs to allow us to speak casually of "IP", so that we don't find every conversation to be a minefield of political correctness. Various suggestions have been made, but each of them seems to me to be so slanted to the opposite agenda that there's little chance of practitioners using them.

However, the term "intellectual privilege" seems to work. It's got the right initial letters, which is a huge win! But it also correctly describes the actual nature of the temporary rights we're considering. After having written most of this, I then searched to see if anyone else thought the same and found that someone is actually working on a book, endorsed by Lawrence Lessig, that has that as the title!

I doubt I will get the chance to explain all this before my next conference keynote. So if I don't, accept my apologies. When I said "IP" just now, I meant "intellectual privilege", and I think it's the right phrase for the job.

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Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.

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