Intellectual property vs. physical property

The theory of copyright is sound enough to seem obvious and unassailable in the modern world: if one creates something, then one should be able to control and profit by its distribution. It applies as well to something we create with our minds as something we create with our hands. If I build something I can sell it, give it away, or keep it for myself. If I write something I should have the same options. If it were that simple, there would be little room for criticism.

But there's a strange difference in how the law treats physical and intellectual property. If I build a desk and sell it to you, you can use it as a desk, you can use it as a basis for constructing something else, you can chop it up and use it as firewood. It's your desk now. But if I write an article and you buy a copy from me, I get to tell you what you can do with it. You can't sell your copy to anyone else, for example. You can't chop it up and make something new out of the pieces. In fact, if I want, I can take it back and not let you have it any more. Even though you paid for it, it's still mine.

If that sounds unlikely to you, then you probably haven't paid much attention to services such as iTunes, Steam, or Amazon's Kindle store. Buy a song, video game, or book and you'd assume that it's yours, right? That's how commerce works – you pay money and receive a product. But in these cases of intellectual property, what you're actually paying for is a licence. And it comes with terms and conditions. Whether you spent $2 on a song, $20 on a book, or $60 on a video game, you may log in one day to find that your licence has been revoked and that thing you thought you owned has been taken away, and there's nothing you can do about it.

And whereas that desk we were talking about earlier would be yours to do with as you please – you can put it in your house, or your shed, or out in the yard – you'll find that those rights don't apply to intellectual property. Did you want to read your new book on your Kobo ereader? Well, you can't do that. You could circumvent the DRM – but that would be a crime, and grounds for revocation of your licence. Did you want to install your old video game on your new computer? Too bad you're only licensed for one installation.

And these restrictions don't serve to protect the content creators; no one who writes a book cares what brand of ereader you read it on. But Amazon cares. Amazon cares a lot. If you start buying books from them, they want you to keep buying from them. When it comes time to upgrade to a new ereader, they don't want you considering their competitors. So they hold your library to ransom. Stick with us, or we'll burn your collection to the ground. That's not what copyright is supposed to be about. That's not in the interest of creators. That's not in the interest of anyone except the big businesses trying to kill off competition.

Australian Copyright Council. (2014). An Introduction to Copyright in Australia. Retrieved from https://lms.curtin.edu.au/bbcswebdav/pid-3479864-dt-content-rid-20247207_1/xid-20247207_1
Birmingham, John. (2015). This is how the future works. In Philippa McGuinness (Ed.), Copyfight (pp. 260-72). Sydney: NewSouth.
Collins, Steve. (2008). "Recovering Fair Use." M/C Journal 11 (6). Retrieved from http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/viewArticle/105
Doctorow, Cory. (2008). Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future. San Francisco, US-CA: Tachyon Publications.
Electronic Frontier Foundation. (n.d.). DMCA. Retrieved from https://www.eff.org/issues/dmca
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Heins, Marjorie. (2003). “The Progress of Science and Useful Arts”: Why Copyright Today Threatens Intellectual Freedom. New York, USA: Free Expression Policy Project.
Netanel, Neil Weinstock. (2008). Copyright's Paradox. USA: Oxford University Press.

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