The death of intellectual property law

I am very concerned about public access to information.

Since the development of computer software, the cost of reproduction has been just the cost of blank media, e.g. a disk. With the internet, downloading makes the marginal cost of copying and distribution virtually zero. This is a huge advantage for public education and for developing countries, which need software and text books to aid development. Their needs, in my view, far outweigh the needs of large proprietary software companies to make their profits several times over by selling in the Chinese or Indian markets.

This points to the need for alternative funding for research and development of software and other intellectual or artistic endeavours. In many fields, there is a large-scale pro bono movement:

• Open Source software is mostly developed and shared for free, so that it can be improved, edited and further developed by a peer-to-peer community. Much of it is available free of charge.

Richard Stallman portrait - DSC6612.jpg

Richard Stallman (above) guru of the free software movement.”Free” means freely accessible (“libre”), not necessarily free of charge (“gratis”).

• Projects such as Wikipedia are based on pro bono contributions from the world’s experts.

• There is a huge Open Access movement, especially in the US. A major public funder of research, the NIH, has an Open Access policy in which research published in a peer-reviewed journal must be published in Open Access form within 12 months. This is not onerous, but has been opposed by the American Association of Publishers, representing academic publishers such as Elsevier, Cornell University Press, New York University Press and Oxford University Press.

• In Australia, a growing number of academics are boycotting Elsevier because tax-payer funded research is published in academic journals for which the annual subscription can be as much as $2,000.

• Stanford University has pioneered the offering of free on-line courses, which have had thousands of enrolments. There is now an app, iTunesU, in which many universities offer free courses. Other institutions, such as the US library of Congress, also offer access to information through iTunesU.

These are extraordinary developments. I believe they are evidence for the proposition that recent developments in information technology have made Intellectual Property Law outmoded. There is an urgent need for review and change in this area.


“Academic journals, as with much of today’s R&D outputs and creative art, are protected by a medieval government monopoly created during the time of the feudal guilds: copyright. This is one of the elements of the umbrella known as intellectual property rights (IPRs), or as should be more accurately termed, intellectual monopoly privileges (IMPs). The latter terminology stems from the recognition that IMPs are a privilege granted by the state to some favoured party, in this case, the private sector.”

Author: Philip Soos, Researcher, School of International & Political Studies at Deakin University

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