The Slow Death of Intellectual Property

I’ve haven’t had time to write about the recent suicide of Aaron Swartz but his death demonstrated much of what is wrong with business models that rely on intellectual property. Aaron Swartz committed suicide while facing a potential 35 years in prison for the act of “stealing” electronic academic journals for the purpose of making them publicly available, for free, to everybody. I put the term stealing into quotation marks because I don’t believe what Aaron did qualifies as theft. Theft implies that another person was deprived of something. If I steal your car you are deprived of the use of your car. Aaron’s act of “theft” didn’t deprive anybody of those journals as they were still available to subscribers of Journal Storage (JSTOR).

Why does the state enact such harsh punishment for intellectual property violations? Because intellectual property lobbyists have invested a great deal of money in getting strong intellectual property laws enacted and the state takes care of its customers. People seldom stop to consider the fact that the state has customers and most people who consider this fact mistakenly believe that the people, that is to say you and me, are the state’s customers. In reality the state’s customers are those who purchase protection from the state. Lobbyists are in the business of buying such protection. Walt Disney, the Recording Industry Association of American, and the Motion Picture Association of American are examples of the state’s intellectual property customers. They purchase intellectual property laws through campaign contributions, giving former state agents cushy jobs as lobbyists or advisers, and other benefits to those comprising the state. In exchange the state grants those entities mafia-like protection. Anybody caught violating the intellectual property lobbyist’s laws can find themselves the victims of kidnapping, extortion, assault, and even murder. Unfortunately for intellectual property lobbyists their business model, which relies entirely on purchased intellectual property laws, is dying and the Internet is its killer.

In order to succeed a business model must be built around scarce goods. This is why nobody has tried building a business model around selling ice to Eskimos or air. Eskimos are surrounded by ice so they have little incentive to buy it and air is all around us so we have little incentive to buy it. The Internet has made things like music, literature, and movies superabundant, that is to say they are no longer scarce goods. Once a song, book, or movie is posted online it literally becomes infinitely reproducible. Intellectual property lobbyists have tried to create artificial scarcity through the purchase of intellectual property laws but to little avail. Even increasing punishments for violating intellectual properly laws has failed to create the lobbyists’ desired scarcity. The death of intellectual property is inevitable and businesses based on intellectual property will either adapt or die themselves.

Sadly many people fail to see the inevitability of intellectual property’s death so individuals like Aaron Swartz will continue to face the state’s violence for some time. What makes matters more depressing is the fact that intellectual property laws aren’t necessary. Just as the Internet has killed intellectual property it has empowered the producers of art. Bands, authors, and movie producers no longer need the assistance of the record, publishing, and movie industries in order to reach their audiences. With a little additional creativity a band, author, or movie producer can still make money off of their art, they just need to change their business model. Kickstarter is an example of a potential new business model for creative individuals. Once an idea has been made public it becomes superabundant but it remains scarce so long as the originator keeps his or her mouth shut. Consider an author. An author could release a title for free and make any future titles pend on whether or not they receive enough donates from a service such as Kickstarter. The first title would be used to build an audience who would fund future titles. The same business model would work for bands and movie producers. In fact the movie Iron Sky was heavily funded in such a manner.

The sooner businesses relying on intellectual property come to terms with the death of their business models the sooner tragedies like what happened to Aaron Swartz will stop. There is no reason state violence is necessary for creative individuals to make money and the fact that violence is still used in order to profit creative individuals demonstrates an ill in our society.