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John Perry Barlow’s “The Economy of Ideas: A framework for patents and copyrights in the Digital Age”


John Perry Barlow‘s 1994 Wired article, “The Economy of Ideas: A framework for patents and copyrights in the Digital Age,” tagged: “(Everything you know about intellectual property is wrong.)”, is a classic. Written at the dawn of the Internet, it’s amazing how non-dated it is. It’s a fascinating, well-written, and insightful paper about the problems of applying classical notions of IP to the digital age. A few choice nuggets:

Intellectual property law cannot be patched, retrofitted, or expanded to contain digitized expression any more than real estate law might be revised to cover the allocation of broadcasting spectrum (which, in fact, rather resembles what is being attempted here). We will need to develop an entirely new set of methods as befits this entirely new set of circumstances.

Most of the people who actually create soft property – the programmers, hackers, and Net surfers – already know this. Unfortunately, neither the companies they work for nor the lawyers these companies hire have enough direct experience with nonmaterial goods to understand why they are so problematic. They are proceeding as though the old laws can somehow be made to work, either by grotesque expansion or by force. They are wrong.


… the increasing difficulty of enforcing existing copyright and patent laws is already placing in peril the ultimate source of intellectual property – the free exchange of ideas.

… when the primary articles of commerce in a society look so much like speech as to be indistinguishable from it, and when the traditional methods of protecting their ownership have become ineffectual, attempting to fix the problem with broader and more vigorous enforcement will inevitably threaten freedom of speech. The greatest constraint on your future liberties may come not from government but from corporate legal departments laboring to protect by force what can no longer be protected by practical efficiency or general social consent.

… Since it is now possible to convey ideas from one mind to another without ever making them physical, we are now claiming to own ideas themselves and not merely their expression. And since it is likewise now possible to create useful tools that never take physical form, we have taken to patenting abstractions, sequences of virtual events, and mathematical formulae – the most unreal estate imaginable. In certain areas, this leaves rights of ownership in such an ambiguous condition that property again adheres to those who can muster the largest armies. The only difference is that this time the armies consist of lawyers.

… To the extent that law and established social practice exists in this area, they are already in dangerous disagreement. The laws regarding unlicensed reproduction of commercial software are clear and stern…and rarely observed. Software piracy laws are so practically unenforceable and breaking them has become so socially acceptable that only a thin minority appears compelled, either by fear or conscience, to obey them. When I give speeches on this subject, I always ask how many people in the audience can honestly claim to have no unauthorized software on their hard disks. I’ve never seen more than 10 percent of the hands go up.

Whenever there is such profound divergence between law and social practice, it is not society that adapts. Against the swift tide of custom, the software publishers’ current practice of hanging a few visible scapegoats is so obviously capricious as to only further diminish respect for the law.

… In the hick town I come from, they don’t give you much credit for just having ideas. You are judged by what you can make of them. As things continue to speed up, I think we see that execution is the best protection for those designs which become physical products. Or, as Steve Jobs once put it, “Real artists ship.” The big winner is usually the one who gets to the market first (and with enough organizational force to keep the lead).

A few quibbles: Barlow does not seem to find classical IP as applied to material property to be very problematic; he seems to think it’s problematic only when applied to digital information. But as the latter is his focus, this is only a minor quibble. The article starts to get more metaphorical, less rigorous, when he tries to develop “A Taxonomy of Information,” but even this section is still insightful.

And though, as alluded to above, the article is not as dated as one might expect, there is a line that might be revised with the benefit of hindsight:

All of the broadcast-support models are flawed. Support either by advertisers or government has almost invariably tainted the purity of the goods delivered. Besides, direct marketing is gradually killing the advertiser-support model anyway.

The subsequent success of Google’s ad-dominated business model calls this bit into question. Still, a great piece.

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