Speed Bumps on the Information Superhighway

CNN reports that recently, Paul Butler, an intern at Facebook, “used data from the social networking site to create a map of people’s friendships across the globe and to see how they related to geographical and political boundaries.” With a successful movie about its founder and some high-profile changes to the site, Facebook has repeatedly popped up in the news this year.

In many ways, the success of the site demonstrates humanity’s robust natural tendency, recreated interminably every day, to partake of unplanned, extempore interactions. Without oversight or a centrally-administered, hierarchical design, human beings connect with each other on their own terms, forging a valuable mesh of “friendships” across the globe.

Montesquieu wrote that “[c]ommerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices,” and, although Facebook isn’t — first and foremost — an avenue of commercial activity between its members, it does represent trade in ideas; it has been witness to the truth that to communicate across cultures doesn’t require ambassadors or diplomats, that, when left alone, people will band together and discover commonalities.

The marvel that is Facebook has also brought intellectual property issues to the fore, a result of the spotlight that the Facebook movie, The Social Network, cast on the high-stakes litigation generated by the company’s birth. It’s largely taken for granted today that intellectual property laws form an integral part of an American “free enterprise” system that takes care of those minds that give us, among other things, new inventions and creative works of literature.

But many of our tacit beliefs regarding IP law evaporate with just a modicum of scrutiny. Intellectual property rights like copyrights and patents don’t actually protect ideas, at least not unless we dissever the idea of protection from its ordinary meaning connoting defense. And, indeed, “national defense” makes a suitable analogy to intellectual property laws, both of the two actually amounting to offensive, violent pugnacity rather than legitimate safekeeping.

As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words, and just as it’s impossible to find a cogent way to designate imperialist U.S. foreign policy “defensive,” it’s similarly far-fetched to argue that intellectual property monopolies protect ideas. What those laws actually do, their concrete, tangible effects in everyday life and the marketplace, is lord over and dictate what other people are allowed to do with their physical property.

The state’s periphrastic phrasing of that process is “incentivizing and securing innovation,” but IP laws can’t touch or act directly on ideas, instead bearing on the kinds of things that really are susceptible to the designation “property.” Every copyright presides over what you can do with your paper and ink (or your hard drive, as the case may be), and every patent ordains the manners in which you can and can’t arrange the things that you own. The free, nonviolent marketplace — with its own natural incentives for creativity and ingenuity — is more than enough to protect ideas, which get along quite well without the forceful intrusions of the state’s intellectual property regime.

In today’s information economy, the grants of monopoly that the state gives through the unfair sanctuary of things like trade secrets and patents are colossal sources of anti-competitive power. Though most of us understand — at least superficially — the benefits derived from free and easy exchange in goods, it is frequently overlooked how important control of the discarnate world of information is.

Licensing agreements for intellectual property make up huge percentages of the commercial transactions that exist across national boundaries, allowing powerful corporate actors to engross important areas of the economy where IP is most prominent. These companies use their state-implemented bargaining power — in large part the result of IP — to strong-arm their overseas franchises into “grant-back” contracts.

These “agreements” vest in corporate megaliths the IP rights to anything new that might be discovered in the course of business. To be sure, intellectual property laws have provided succor to the multinationals that tower above our “flat world,” but they haven’t done anything like promoting inventiveness or diverse channels of information. Like so many companies, Facebook embodies the contradiction of the information economy, at once a source of malleable, ever-shifting networks and the smothering despotism of IP law.

Next time you see a tiny, encircled “c” or a patent number, reflect on how these things actually operate. Are ideas something that — even if we could — we would want to say that some people own? In practice, conveniently for the state’s ruling class, the ownership of ideas means the ownership of people and their personal effects, an Information Age slavery that’s hard to justify within the terms of “free enterprise.”

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