Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Fiction of Intellectual Property

It’s not unusual to hear helicopters over and around my house (I live near, and on the approach path to, St. Louis’s main airport), so I didn’t notice the US Department Homeland Security’s major terrorist roundup only a few blocks away until I saw it on the news late last week.

Oh, wait, did I say “terrorist?” Sorry. Make that “entrepreneur.”

Frison Flea Market has long been well known as the local go-to spot for inexpensive shoes, handbags, DVDs and so forth. It’s open — or was, anyway — on weekends. For a small fee, customers gain entrance to a huge grotto of booths with vendors hawking everything from refurbished computers to old comic books … to apparently new products at incredibly low prices.

How can those prices be so low? Well, the vendors somehow forgot to pay their rent. Not the flea market booth rent, but the rent to Nike, Gucci, Disney and other politically connected companies on whose behalf Congress has created a fiction called “intellectual property” which they can charge rent on, with the US Department of Homeland Security acting as collector (or evictor) as needed.

This arrangement is so transparently silly that it has to be covered up with additional fictions.

For example, the fiction that if you have something Universal Studios doesn’t want you to have, it is “stolen,” even if their copies of it haven’t gone missing.

And the fiction that “intellectual property theft” is a primary vector for the finance of “international terrorism” (if you want to see a real vector of that type, check out IRS Form 1040 — killer drones aren’t free, you know).

And so it came to pass that last Thursday morning, a convoy of government vehicles (with air support — or maybe that was just a conveniently alerted “news” chopper) pulled up to Frison Flea Market, disgorging a phalanx of black-clad, armed agents, who then proceeded to steal … er, “seize” … everything in sight.

Because after all, if your sister can just wander down to Frison Flea Market and buy a purse for $20 without paying an additional $380 in rent on the word “Coach,” the terrorists have won, right?

To break down the absurdity of all this, a real-life example:

The weekend before the raid, my wife and son shelled out several tens of dollars to catch Prometheus on the big screen. The following day, they visited Frison Flea Market, and noticed a bootleg DVD of the movie already for sale in the $5 range. Pretty quick, huh? I have no idea whether it was burned from a print of the movie, or just captured on hand-held camera in a theater. But anyway, there it was.

Standard “intellectual property” justifications for making this bootlegging illegal go as follows: If anyone can buy a cheap bootleg DVD, they won’t see the movie in theaters, or pay full price for the “legitimate” DVD release. The bootleggers are obviously STEALING the movie studio’s profits.

But does anyone honestly believe that people who were hot and bothered to shell out $10 a ticket and pay for expensive popcorn to get the big-screen experience would have settled for watching it on DVD — possibly in inferior form — at home? So much so that they would schlep down to the flea market for the privilege? Or that a real fan would grab the $5 bootleg instead of the superfrap extended edition in the molded tin case, with 58-page color liner notes?

Chances are that bootleg cost the filmmakers, studio, distributor and theater not one thin dime in “lost revenues.” In fact, if the movie is any good and the bootleg is of inferior quality, its mere existence probably boosts sales of the “real” DVD — and ticket sales to the sequel — by introducing people to the movie who wouldn’t have considered paying $19.99 for something they hadn’t had a look at first.

Let’s put this thing on the slippery slope and see how far down it rolls. When you see a movie, you remember it. Or, to put it a different way, a copy of it exists in your brain. But hey — it’s copyrighted. Stop, thief! And if you and your kids go home, start horsing around, and re-enact a scene from the film, Katie bar the door (especially you didn’t rent that swoosh on your tennis shoes) … you’re reproducing it! Bootleggers! Queue SWAT.

If my assessment of “intellectual property” seems harsh, well, I’ve tried to keep an open mind over the years, asking those who favor it to offer any argument for it that doesn’t boil down to “because we waaaant it that way … and we and our government collection agents have guns.”

So far, no takers. But I’ll keep listening.

by Thomas L. Knapp at Center for a Stateless Society republished under Creative Commons.

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