Re-Establishing Altruism As A Viable Social Norm

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Intellectual Property & Altruism

"If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possess the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement, or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property."     Thomas Jefferson

The International Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property was signed in 1883, allowing innovators to patent their inventions, effectively granting them a monopoly for a limited number of years. The justification of the system was that innovators needed the incentive of a large potential income stream that a legally protected monopoly would provide. This system is increasingly being used not to increase the wealth of society, but to increase the wealth of a few often at great cost to society.

DownloadsTitleAuthor(s)        Date       Reference
 Rent Seeking and Innovation Michele Boldrin & David K. Levine 2003-07-13

The desire for a large income stream stems, ultimately, from the desire to protect return on investment (ROI). ROI is so embedded in the prevailing economic system that it may seem vain to call it in to question. However, awareness is growing about the interconnectedness of everyone's welfare, and people are beginning to see the folly of replacing traditional values with a focus on a zero-sum phenomenon such as the money system. An altruistic society based on positive relationships and sharing with others would not need jealously gaurded intellectual property rights. Proprietory innovation calculated to generate an income stream for a particular subsection of society could be happily be discarded in favour of a less restrictive system, which rewarded creative innovation for the general good. A heavy-handed system of intellectual property legislation motivated by a spririt of tight-fisted control is being increasingly abused by the financially rich and powerful, not for promoting socially-productive innovation, but to protect entrenched monopoly positions. There are alternatives. The position of charities which undertake research is illustrative. They are provided with money, not to gain a financial return, but to put it to good use to meet their philanthropic aims. Discouraging innovation for the sake of money making would encourage it only by those intending to better mankind. There was, after all, a lot of innovation and invention before intellectual property rights were given force by legislation.

A landmark ruling occured when a 1928 application to patent a newly purified chemical element (Tungsten) was rejected because although not naturally occuring in its pure form, it is a naturally occuring part of the earth's crust, and so could not be considered an 'invention'. This shows how much the operation of patent law has changed, since in 1987 the US Patent and Trademark Office issued a broad directive that genes, chromosomes, cells and tissues were patentable. As the basic elements of all living beings, these are obviously present in nature and so it seems hard to understand how they qualify as 'inventions'. Several have remarked that the system no longer operates impartially for the betterment of society as its devisors intended. Corporate legal teams in the 'developed' countries (especially in USA) have revealed some startling re-interpretations of this concept, such as, for example, ruling that in spite of being 'substantially equivalent' to normal foodstuffs, genetically modified foodstuffs are innovative enough to be patentable.

Financial pressure has also warped copyright law away from the original statutes; its length has been continually revised upwards, and where technology has rendered the original law ambiguous, the strictest interpretation possible has been made. The creation of an abundance of information is directly at odds with profiteers who abuse intellectual property law to try to perpetuate scarcity whatever the cost to society at large.

New technology is already developing at a quite bewildering rate - and so increasing its speed of development further would seem like a poor end in itself. An altruistic society would be more interested in the wider consequences of development rather than its profitability for a small group, those who commercially exploit innovations.

A major disadvantage of intellectual property rights is that granting a monopoly may have undesirable social consequences as companies try to maximise their profit irrespective of wider costs for society. The competitiveness inherent in the money system means that very often the interests of companies (and their rich investors) are in direct conflict with those of individuals, especially the poor and marginalised.

Recent decisions involving Aids drugs have shown that individuals can influence companies to put the common good ahead of more selfish interests. 'Sound Economics' is, for some at least, no longer sufficient reason to justify letting others suffer. Software patents in particular have been subject to a lot of criticism for a variety of reasons. The lengths of time for which they are granted, for example, are so long that by the time they expire the technologies are effectively obsolete.

To find out what "Orphan Works" are, and why they are worth saving! ->(e)

FURTHER READING » Legal Downloads

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Creative Commons
This site aims to increase the amount of creative content which is legally available for others to build upon and share. They have published various licences in an easy to understand format, and offer guidance about suitability.
Electronic Frontier Foundation
A non-profit alliance to protect the legal rights of individuals on the internet by providing legal help and online resources. This site has up to date and thought provoking information and news on topics such as free speech, privacy and copyright.
Open Source Initiative
A non-profit corporation to manage and make the commercial case for Open Source and to promote the Definition of Open Source Software for the good of the community.
Chilling Effects Clearinghouse
This site was set up by US law schools and other Free Speech activists especially for the sake of webmasters who are facing legal challenges to their free speech from corporations. It explains US law on areas such as copyright, trademarks and defamation.
Started to protest against the 'Digital Millenium Copyright Act' (which the authors see as unconstitutional) this site highlights the power that corporations exercise over the legislative process.
Info Anarchy
Editable discussion of privacy and information sharing. The authors perceive copyright as a violation of Free Speech and an attempt by the media and by corporations to increase the power they exert over individuals by denying them access to information.
Global Internet Liberty Campaign
Provides news of attempts to invade privacy on the Internet. Organises lobbying actions amongst its influential member organisations.
Centre For Digital Democracy
Non-profit campaign to keep internet content free from the influence of the content suppliers. Has a collection of articles and news stories related to internet freedom.
Radio Free School
All-volunteer weekly radio show by, for and about un-schoolers. MP3 archives available. Start with the December 2004 episodes featuring John Taylor Gatto.
Space Highjackers
Cheerful and imaginative, London-based group of 'anarchitects' who would like public space to be more democratically used, and who organise events to encourage the public to be create in how and what they do in public spaces.
Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email
All volunteer organisation that campaigns in favour of stronger anti-spam laws, informs users and legislators about technical aspects relative to spam.
Privacy International
Formed in 1990 by a group of human rights activists, journalists, computer and other professionals, this group aims to preserve individuals' rights from electronic infrignement. It runs campaigns, collects news and reports coutrywise and internationally.

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