Fixing IP laws, part 1 - Introduction

For a couple of years now, I've been more and more disappointed with the way the world's IP laws have been trending. I believe that they are moving away from their original intentions in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways, and that this is increasingly rendering them unfit for purpose.

So I thought I'd write a series of short articles in which I take a positive stance, and say how we can improve them.


Here's the rough outline of what to expect - links will be provided as each one is written:

  • Part 1 - Introduction (This page!)
  • Part 2 - Copyright and the Public Domain
  • Part 3 - Copyright and Technology
  • Part 4 - Positioning Copyright
  • Part 5 - Policing Patents
  • Part 6 - Closing Comments

But before we can dive into the wonders of Copyright and the Public Domain, I would be doing every reader a disservice if I didn't explain my own use of intellectual copyright laws, and then give a very brief overview of intellectual property law's purpose as I see it.

My stake in this

I have a steady full-time job in which I create very little - I'm effectively a digital janitor.

Outside that job, two of my hobbies are photography and writing. I don't charge for either, and have no plans to - but am aware that there are people out there who may try to make money off my work, and that I need to protect it.
Some of my output has been used commercially, and if I'm asked about commercial use I evaluate each request independently.
Long ago I stumbled across the Creative Commons, who helped introduce me to copyright and whose licenses I still use to this day. I highly recommend them, and have donated to support them.

Those are my only stakes in this area as a producer of intellectual property - otherwise, I am a consumer.

The purpose of intellectual property laws

Before I do anything, it is very important to state the purpose of intellectual property laws. To do that, we must first define intellectual property itself.

Intellectual property is the intangible product of the mind, expressed in an easily copyable form.

Technically, both a statue and a photograph are intellectual property - but for practical purposes in intellectual property law, the photograph matters more. The form of a statue is a physical object, but probably quite hard to duplicate or transfer. The form of a photograph is a print, and somewhat easier to copy - so intellectual property has tended to be used a lot more for the latter.

I mean no disregard to sculptors here. And 3D printing may mean that soon, sculptors will be having intellectual property debates. But for the purposes of my discussion, I'm focusing on the more easily copyable aspects of intellectual property.

So what is the purpose of intellectual property law?

To give a limited period of monopoly to the owner of intellectual property, so that they may profit from it (or not) as they see fit. After that period, this monopoly expires and the work moves into the Public Domain, where all may use the intellectual property for whatever they choose. In this way, the creator may make a living and society may be assured of progress as works can eventually be re-used and built upon legally.

Humans have spent millennia sharing their art and ideas - to reward someone for theirs is not unnatural, but to not share them is. Intellectual property laws aim to strike a fair balance between our instinct to seek reward and our instinct to share, and that is what the limited monopoly they grant is for.

I can understand that the idea of a monopoly may rub some people up the wrong way, but that is what intellectual property law is. So far, we have not found a better way to regulate the balancing of our conflicting instincts.


In the next part, I will outline how I see this balance between the limited monopoly (copyright) and the desire to share (the public domain), and what needs to be done to preserve that balance.