Mar 02 2004

Intellectual property is theft!

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 07RCN @ 2:58 pm

Alan Graham looks at the way capitalism has appropriated intellectual property and suggests some ways to fight back.

The main focus of socialist thought, including within the SSP, is about emancipating ourselves from economic exploitation such as poor pay and long hours, but before socialist thought can become the norm we must emancipate our minds from bourgeois indoctrination.

In this article I will address one area: that of Intellectual Property, arguing the idea that it is not just our physical bodies that are enslaved when we labour for the bourgeoisie but our minds as well. As my background is in computing, the examples given will mainly be from the computing world but it is the underlying principle that is of importance, not the examples themselves and there are numerous analogies in every area of capitalism.

All With Good Intentions

There are three main areas of intellectual property: Patents, Copyrights ©, and Trademarks (™, ®). Each of these was intended to protect the inventor of an idea from having it abused by someone who had no part in its design.

Patents: These must be applied for from a country’s patent agency. To be granted a patent an invention must be original, non-obvious and have a commercial value. Another condition is that an inventor must inform no one of his/her invention until a patent is applied for to allow it to keep its ‘original’ status and avoid the possibility of someone stealing the invention. A patent lasts for 20 years before others can reproduce the item. This is the opposite of a trade secret whereby a company/individual does not allow the workings of an invention to be made public giving them exclusive knowledge of its operations but no protection if a competing company creates and sells an identical item.

Copyright: This is the right to copy an item and lasts for 75 years after the death of an inventor. This is intended to grant an artist the exclusive rights to decide who can copy their work through licensing. For example this would stop a company from reproducing and selling an article without permission from the author. Copyright is automatically granted whenever something is created.

Trademark: This is used to stop the theft of a logo that would allow confusion between two companies. BT could not change their logo to be an identical design as Telewest for example, and no one could use the name British Tele-communicators and shorten it to BT to trade as a phone operator causing confusion between themselves and the ‘real’ BT (British Telecommunications). However Apple Macintosh can’t prevent a fruit company from operating under the name Macintosh Apples.

Each of these systems, although admittedly created to protect business, also were intended to prevent the exploitation of an individual’s creation by another company. The question is then: How well do they work?

Big Business Abuse


As stated above, the patent system was designed to only allow an invention to be patented if it is original, non-obvious and has industrial applications. When big business is involved in such a system the potential and, indeed inevitability, of the system’s corruption is certain. In 1979 IBM released the DOS filing system. Microsoft bought the rights to this from IBM in 1981 and patented it in 1986; the patent will run out in 2006. So the system previously existed, was on the market for 2 years before Microsoft bought it, and they had been selling it for 5 years before patenting it. The patent is still considered valid.


The most widely known example of big business exerting pressure over trademarks should be of great relevance to all Scots. McDonalds hit the headlines for demanding a shop called McMunchies cease using Mc as a prefix in case customers become confused between the companies. The backlash against this and other cases where food shops were threatened for using McDonalds as part of their name caused an infuriated response from not only the anti-McDonalds groups but by a huge array of groups including big business’ best buddy – the Tories! That is not to say that the reason for the Tories opposing McDonalds on this issue was right or indeed similar to ours, but just that opposition to the current system, with its inbuilt ease of corruption, is opposed by a wide range of people from different class interests.


As can be seen from history, governments support the theft of copyrighted materials until the benefit from selling their own copyrighted work outweighs the benefit from stealing copyrighted work. An example is Shakespeare’s work being printed in America without giving his estate any money at all. Once the US reached a stage where they had more to gain than lose from enforcing Intellectual Property laws they switched to enforcing them. The best recent example of which you can see now is with the RIAA and MPAA.

These massive conglomerates of the biggest media companies are suing everyone from 12 year old girls to 80 year old grannies for downloading music files whilst sending jackbooted thugs dressed in FBI style outfits to close down market stalls calling themselves the ‘music police’, which if anyone else was to do would be called impersonating a police officer. There are two major arguments against such authoritarian abuse and these are built into the copyright system itself: parody and fair use. Parody being where you can reproduce an artwork if the intention is to mock, not to imply yourself as the author of the original work. This would have stopped Microsoft from attempting to sue a Mr Mike Rowe for registering his domain name and claiming its an infringement of their copyright.

Fair use is the ability to use the item as you wish. So you should be able to copy a CD you own onto a cassette or your PC. Whether you should be able to copy and give or sell to another person is a separate issue, one the RIAA do not admit exists. In their attacks the RIAA fail to distinguish between these two. DVD-John is another example. When DVD players for PCs first came out the software to make them work only supported Windows machines. DVD-Jon as he came to be known worked on software to enable his DVD player to work on his Linux machine. When he did so in 1999 at the age of 15 and released this code to the public for free he was immediately threatened with lawsuits by the MPAA. In January this year he won his appeal against their charges and previous victories and a blow was struck against the massive media companies.

The other major, and much ignored abuse is that a student at university, college or school may not own the copyright on any of the work they produce whilst in the institution. Part of the contract to apply for university or college includes signing away intellectual property rights to the University itself or the SQA. Similarly if you invent something, draw or paint, write a poem, an article or indeed a song whilst you are working for a company, the company is the owner of the copyright to the work. Something to contemplate the next time you doodle during a meeting!

Before proposing a socialist solution, I will give some examples of how the capitalist intellectual property schemes could be improved. This is not to present these as an alternative to a socialist solution, but to show the inherent nature of the capitalist system that rejects such improvements.

The Fairer Option

Patents is the most easily reformed system and that would be to just simply not to grant patents for items which fail to meet the criteria. Once this basic idea is established then patents can themselves be cleaned up so that the wording of the patent only reflects the item being patented and cannot be used to accuse a different but similar item of infringing upon it.

Copyright would be the most difficult to change. So entrenched are big businesses into the system itself that it would be difficult for capitalist government to climb out of their pockets and kick them from the decision making process. The first obvious step would be to fully allow parody and fair use within the copyright process. If an individual purchases an item they should be free to use that in whatever way they want without the copyright holder taking them to court. Ikea would not sue you for cutting the legs shorter on a table you purchased from them so why should the RIAA or BPI be able to sue you for listening to an MP3 file you made of the CD you purchased? If we are to be slaves to consumerism then the public must be able to decide the way in which they consume.

Trademarks are again easy to change, just disallow the registering of names or commonly used words. Orange, the phone company, have rights to use the word orange accompanied by an orange background. Perhaps we all missed the day when not only did they invent these two but first used them together.

An Alternative System for an Alternative Worldview

There are other ideas put forward by various groups about alternative schemes to be used now. Unfortunately they are under constant attack by the pawns of capitalism so it is my view that revolutionary as these proposed systems are, they can only be truly and fully utilised in a socialist society.

The two easiest systems to change are the trademarks and patents systems. Why would one person be allowed to stop another from producing a life-saving medicine? Why would a logo need to be exclusively used to promote a private business? The answer is that as these exist to protect a business tool, then they would have no place within a socialist society anyway.

Copyright is a different matter however. Copyright exists with a dual use: to prevent unauthorised reproduction and in effect profiting from a work and secondly to acknowledge authorship of a work. There is no reason to cease acknowledging the authorship of a song, poem, book, drawing or any other work. Being the author should not lead to monetary gain anyway; then being credited with your work should be reward enough.

Two such systems that should be analysed for their relevance are CopyLeft and GPL.

CopyLeft, much as the name implies is a stark opposite to Copyright. It is a system where an author allows their work to be reproduced on the condition that the work it is part of is also CopyLeft and that they are credited with authorship. Not surprising this is not a system that is developing overnight and it only spreads slowly through the farming out of articles to multiple magazines, journals and newspapers. As this is how socialists spread their literature and ideas, I would appeal to all socialists to declare their articles CopyLeft or at the least declare that this article can be reproduced and edited by anyone as long as I am credited as the author. We should, after all, be trying to allow socialist points of view to spread to the maximum audience in the maximum number of ways possible.

GPL is a similar paradigm that is used with computer software. When you buy a piece of software from a store you generally sign an End User Licence Agreement that denies you the right to modify the software at all. There is a move within the software developing community towards Open Source and free software. One aspect of this is the GPL. Any software that is released has the actual source code included so that anyone with the knowledge to modify it can do so as they wish. Under the sole condition that if they release their version, they release the code as well and give it a GPL licence.

Both of these systems are split into two camps of release it for free and release at a price but include the ability to modify and re-use. It does not take much thought to see how these types of ideas can be spread and modified from a socialist perspective. This can give rise to the freeing of knowledge, which is after all the root of power. From a socialist perspective it is not enough to just ignore the capitalist intellectual property laws (such as Cuba plans with the reproduction of cheap anti-HIV drugs for Africa), but we must carefully prise back every tentacle they have spread until we can implement a fairer democratic and free system where knowledge is available to all. The paradigm of the GPL/CopyLeft system can be implemented in literature, articles and other writings. Musicians can allow their music to be spread to as many ears as possible whilst allowing others to sample and remix their creation in a way that they themselves find appealing. We cannot emancipate our minds unless we first identify how our minds are enslaved.

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