But you might ask, What is “intellectual property”?
The simple answer is this: intellectual property is the legal right of large conglomerates to keep individuals from saying anything of which the conglomerates do not approve.
This is distinct from copyrights and patents, whose purpose is explained in admirably succinct terms in the United States Constitution: “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” In other words, writers and inventors should be able to make a living, and if they can do so, we shall have more writing and invention. For a limited time, then, a writer or inventor is the only one who can use the thing she has written or invented. After that, it becomes the property of the public, which is the primary purpose of encouraging writing and invention.
Contrast this with the intellectual-property laws we have today, which have the opposite effect. Until the end of this year, the first record by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Livery Stable Blues, is still under copyright. If you want to use it to establish atmosphere in your movie set in 1917, you have to pay a licensing fee. Were Nick LaRocca, Larry Shields, and the rest encouraged to create by knowing that, a hundred years later, their creation would make money for a Japanese conglomerate? In literary works, the copyright in the United States now lasts for 95 years from publication. How many writers are making a living today from works they themselves wrote 95 years ago?
You might, of course, say that authors are encouraged by the idea that they might leave their intellectual property to their grandchildren. Perhaps they are. But do we have more authors because of 95-year copyrights than we would have had if the copyright lasted for 28 years? Dr. Boli does not believe that any more writing is encouraged by copyrights that last long past the death of the author.
But much is discouraged. The purpose of copyright is to cause more people to write for a living. With copyrights that last into their great-great-grandchildren’s generation, however, successful authors can establish an intellectual-property aristocracy whose defining characteristic is that it has no need to contribute anything to our intellectual life. On the contrary, by asserting their right to a work produced decades ago by someone long dead, they stifle our intellectual life.
Consider the case of Shakespeare. That is really all you have to do: the argument is made. Shakespeare’s best plays would have been impossible under modern intellectual-property law. If he had produced them, the conglomerates who owned the rights to the vastly inferior source material would have sued him and taken all the proceeds of his genius. Would that have encouraged Shakespeare? Would it have promoted the progress of his art?
Very well, you say: I am convinced, but what can I do? The ordinary citizen can do much. The best thing to do is to adopt the strategy of the intellectual-property empires, the strategy that brought us to this point, and use it against them. Buy yourself a representative, or a senator if you can afford one, and make it clear to your new pet that the campaign money will cease to flow unless legislation is introduced to restore a sane balance to copyright law.
But if you cannot afford even so much as a representative, you at least can vote. It is surprising how much your vote is worth; you could make a rough estimate by aggregating all the costs of the campaign advertising directed at you, and you would be surprised at the number. Candidates for office do care about your vote. Set some sensible conditions on it, and encourage others to do the same. The empire of intellectual property was not built in a day, and it will not be dismantled in a day. But we barbarians will bring it down eventually if we concentrate our efforts on its weakest frontiers.