Sunday, April 02, 2006

In defense of Richard Stallman on "Intellectual Property"

Richard Stallman gave the keynote speech at the Turin, Italy, meeting on March 18 about the drafting of GPLv3. He started, startlingly, by criticizing the term "Intellectual Property". You can read the whole speech at Groklaw, but here's the opening salvo:
There is a term that some people use, which causes terrible confusion and should never be used, and that is the term "intellectual property". Now, I heard someone mention that term. I don't think he was explaining why that term should not be used.

It is devastatingly harmful to use the term "intellectual property" because that term implies the existence of something which does not exist.

Copyright law exists. Patent law exists. They have almost nothing in common in terms of the requirements that they put on the public. Trademark law also exists. It has nothing in common with copyright law or patent law about what it requires of the public. So, the idea that there is some general thing which these are instances of already gets people so confused that they cannot understand these issues. There is no such thing. These are three separate unrelated issues, and any attempt to generalise about them guarantees confusion. Everyone who uses the term "intellectual property" is either confused himself or trying to confuse you.

I've signed many consulting contracts in my time, and all of them included clauses intended to protect IP. Inevitably they did not define it, nor explain how it would be defined. IP in general seems to be something intangible that companies want to protect.

My Intellectual Property Lawyer (yes, they exist) taught me to insist always on a clear definition of what my clients want to protect. My favorite way does not attempt at all to define what IP is: I "agree that my customer can inform me in writing that some information is proprietary, and I will then protect it as specified in the contract."

Stallman argues clearly that there is no such clear THING as IP. It's in the eyes of the beholder. He would argue similarly I think, against using terms like "intellectual beauty" or "inherent beauty" or "beauty-value property", since these are obviously not abstractly definable. Perhaps what gives "Intellectual Property" weight in the current world is the fact that we keep using it.
- Precision Blogger
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