Law in the Internet Society

Intellectual Property and Thought Control

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The ease of digital production and distribution disrupts the economic case for intellectual property. Beyond this, the computer's central role in creation, reproduction, and distribution also illuminates the basic immorality of IP law, its incompatibility with a free society.

We presume that in a free society, the state can enforce laws that limit freedom of action, within democratic limits. We may even tolerate limits on what we can read or hear, if rarely and only when told that it will keep us safe from our darkest fears, like terrorists, child pornographers, identity thieves. Still, our sense of freedom recoils from the notion of the state policing any thoughts themselves, if they are not put into action.


When we think about computers, we don't usually think about the processing but the results, the output of the software or the content on the display. Most people relate to computers as passive, invisible entities, not even "computers," really. They are "smartphones" or "tablets," or more remotely "game consoles," or in most cases just "the DVD player" and "the car." But, the computers in all these devices are generally programmable, universal computers.

Universal computers are special, because they can execute any algorithm. An algorithm is thought broken down into pieces -- a set of process and rules that can be described using logic. What algorithms may be run on a computer is limited only by the speed of its circuitry and capacity to store data. It is always important to keep in mind that any computer is a "thinking machine," Computers process concrete logical instructions. In that sense, computer thinking seems to differ from people thinking -- but nevertheless, computers do an increasing amount of our thinking for us.


The "Information Age" is characterized by the word "information." Information is a long, Latin-rooted, technical-sounding word. We understand it, when read or heard, at an intellectual remove from our living experience. "The Information Age" is basically a marketing phrase, used to sell people on the idea that money can be made by buying and selling information. And the idea of commercializing thought would be a tougher sell. Marketers avoid words like "knowing" and "thought." To control the marketplace of thought would mean having to control thought. We don't like to contemplate what that means for a free society. Would it mean that just as state force helps control the market of land and things, it must also guarantee the marketplace of thought? That seems scary. Instead, "information" may be bought, sold, and owned, even as thoughts remain free.

The Information Age marketer sells a piece of information that has been carved out and productized. The information is translated into a series of logical processes, run through a universal computer, and turned into numbers that can be stored and displayed. Of course, a universal computer can run any algorithm with which it is programmed. So duplicating what it has stored in its memory, even when it's only cached there temporarily, is really easy. The ease of translation, duplication, and transmission, makes it hard to extract profits from the scarcity of information that can never actually be scarce.

In response to this, sellers have tried increasingly sophisticated algorithms that lock up and control access to information products. But, these technological measures have been foiled again and again. Universal computers can run the algorithms that defeat the restrictions, because they have to be leaky for the information to be distributed and read by paying customers. Information sellers respond by developing restrictions that are increasingly fundamental to the operation of the computer. For example, software can be silently installed in computers that secretly reports on unauthorized access when a computer goes online, or even shuts computer's operating system and ability to function entirely. This is especially common in computers that are marketed in ways that avoid calling them "computers," like smartphones, tablets, game consoles, and embedded devices.

Anything thought builds, though, thought can undo. Thoughts, implemented as algorithms running on computers, can be used to break all the most sophisticated locks placed on information. The knowledge of how to circumvent can be restricted by banning certain algorithms, censoring the websites that publicize them, and watching those who seek them. Algorithms, imagined by knowledge applied creatively, can go around all these measures. So, the only solution is to ban the thoughts behind the algorithm -- to punish the people who think about them and try to learn about them.


IP laws represent the use of force to support artificial boundaries around thoughts, to make them scarce and commercially valuable. In a world in which thoughts are processed by computers and distributed through communication networks, enforcing the law necessarily means that the police must ban algorithms that pierce these boundaries, backed by the threat of prison. Thoughts embodied by these algorithms must be restricted, even when they may improve lives, by making the transfer of large amounts of data more efficient, or save lives, by allowing dissidents to organize protests more safely. Innovators who seek to benefit society as a whole fall under the hammer of the law, while those who seek to use algorithms to commit crimes in the shadows slip around the enforcers. The powerless, those too unskilled or lacking means to escape detection, are the ones caught and punished.

The digital age reveals what IP law has always been about, the parcelization and control of thoughts to benefit those who did not create but rather owned the means of amplification and distribution: the industrialists who run printing presses, the studio executives, and the financiers behind them. Those who support the IP regime often couch arguments in terms of economic utility, but underlying the rhetoric is an assumption of a moral case, protecting creators from their ideas being "stolen." We can argue over whether thoughts can be stolen, but more urgently, what does it mean for this moral case when the state's enforcement will inevitably take away the freedom of people to think, and thus create?

-- BahradSokhansanj - 19 Mar 2012



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r18 - 04 Sep 2012 - 22:02:22 - IanSullivan
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