You may be familiar with the role of proprietary automobile diagnostic software in enforcing a repair cartel of the Big Auto manufacturers, dealership mechanics, and auto repair chains and big garages that can afford to license the software. By using closed software that makes it impossible for an independent party to access it, or open it up and modify it, the effect is to lock low-cost, independent mechanics (“shade tree mechanics”) out of a major share of repair work. Similarly, closed, proprietary software in electronic voting machines makes the process of counting votes completely non-transparent so that voters and independent investigators have no way to verify whether the machines have been hacked — a repeated concern in election years ever since the internal emails of the Diebold company were leaked in 2004. But at least you don’t depend on such software to keep your heart beating. Well, actually you do — as Cory Doctorow points out, pacemakers also run on proprietary software (“Pacemakers and Piracy: The Unintended Consequences of the DMCA for Medical Implants,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, April 19).
The whole point of proprietary software and other forms of proprietary information, coupled with the DMCA’s restrictions on circumvention technology, is that you never actually own anything you buy. In fact directly accessing the source code is a crime. That’s bad enough — an injustice and an inconvenience — when it comes to your computer operating system or a song you paid for. But when it involves the software running a device inside your own body, that you depend on to keep your heart beating, it’s a lot more serious. As Doctorow says:
“However you feel about copyright law, everyone should be able to agree that copyright shouldn’t get in the way of testing the software in your hearing aid, pacemaker, insulin pump, or prosthetic limb to look for safety risks (or privacy risks, for that matter).”
Of course this is nothing new. So-called “intellectual property” has been a threat to human safety and survival ever since neoliberal “Free Trade Agreements” started imposing draconian increases in copyright and patent protections about 25 years ago. Big Pharma has been one of the most strident lobbyists — and biggest beneficiaries — for imposing U.S. patent law on a global scale. So countries that previously allowed the production of generic forms of patented life-saving drugs, or had compulsory licensing requirements, now fall afoul of the “intellectual property” provisions of those “Free Trade Agreements.” That translates into the deaths of potentially millions of real-life human beings.
In the United States, the chemical cocktail injected into the ground in the hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) process is also proprietary. That means the public, whose ground water is potentially threatened by these chemicals, has no legal right to know what’s being pumped into the ground by fossil fuels companies.
So the nature of “intellectual property” isn’t just a theoretical debate. “Property” claims on the right to use or duplicate information, or to copy techniques, are not only spurious in principle. They’re a threat to human life in the real world. It’s time to abolish them.