Copyright laws impoverish us culturally, artistically
Saturday, March 15, 2014
Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

“Intellectual property” rights (IPR) are a recent concept in government-granted monopoly rights in copyright, patent and trademark. Proponents of these monopoly rights have encouraged the term “intellectual property” to imply that they are commensurate with real physical property, the rights for which go back at least to ancient Roman law.

Most people now cannot conceive of a world without these new-found rights, no matter the abuses and costs associated with them. However, some people are starting to question them for these reasons:

  • Philosophically, intellectual property is not the same as real property, which cannot be shared without diminishing the owner’s ability to use it. If I share my house with you, I have only half a house to live in. If I share my idea with you, we can each use it equally (although I can’t profit by forcing you to pay me for using it).
  • Many people think that without copyright monopolies, art, novels and films wouldn’t be created – even our founding fathers thought this. However, money is not the only reason people create. Many do it for personal enjoyment, for prestige or as a public service (example: millions of unpaid blogs). And there always have been other ways artists and writers can make money.
  • Copyright laws impoverish us culturally and artistically. Why do you think Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is so difficult to find in full? The great ideas should be freed.
  • Similarly, many think that without patent monopolies, companies wouldn’t invent lifesaving medicines or invest in research. But studies have shown that patents actually inhibit innovation and invention. (Yes, you read that right). One reason is that patents prevent companies from improving on other companies’ ideas.
  • Patents also cause companies to rest on their laurels and focus more on protecting their patents than on making new products.
  • Patents and copyright divert billions of dollars to unproductive legal maneuvering and patent trolls.
  • IPR laws are one of the major contributors to income inequality, making the cost of living less affordable, especially for the poor, while fattening the coffers of software, entertainment, agri-business and drug companies.
  • IPR results in powerful monopolistic corporations. Once companies have grown fat with monopolistic privileges, they can squelch competition from startup firms and they have the deep pockets to fund political influence, yielding even more privileged laws. The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act (a.k.a. “the Mickey Mouse Protection Act”) lengthened the copyright protection period and yielded billions of dollars for the well-lobbied Disney empire.
  • Like all laws of privilege, they inevitably expand over time (see Disney) and will continue to do so to the cost of consumers.
  • Patent laws result in millions of unnecessary deaths, as poor countries are forbidden to copy lifesaving medicines.

It’s frightening for some people to imagine life with different laws, but it would be more equitable and affordable without these government-granted monopolies:

  • Visual artists would still create art and sell it to willing patrons
  • Authors would still write novels for their own enjoyment and for the prestige, awards and teaching jobs that follow a good book. They are probably also ways to make money from advertisers, etc. that would be discovered.
  • Drug companies, able to improve on other companies’ formulations, would introduce many more drugs (if the FDA also stops inhibiting them). They would quickly make as much money as possible from each one while creating the next and wouldn’t be forced to spend millions on patent lawyers and advertising blockbuster drugs.
  • Movie studios wouldn’t be able to pay actors $20 million, and would release smaller-budget films.
  • Basic research would no longer be less profitable than patentable research.
  • There would be far fewer lawyers.
  • There would still be many millionaires, but far fewer billionaires.


It’s time to change how we think about these government-enforced monopolistic privileges.