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The common goose

The rapid expansion of digital technologies, and opening up of new channels of communication and information, challenges notions of the ownership of ideas. Richard Hillesley investigates...

They hang the man and flog the woman,
Who steals the goose from off the common,
Yet let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.

– 17th century English ballad

Unlike the media that preceded it, the internet is interactive. We can determine what we read, and how we read it. We are the editors and the filters. The internet is hard to police, and harder to censor. Technology is redefining the possibilities for information exchange and the dissemination of ideas.

At the same time there has been a steady movement by governments and corporate bodies to use copyright and patent law as tools to lock down the ownership of ideas. And while the web is convenient and easy as a channel for communication and information, all that lies between us and our right to privacy and our ability to communicate is an ISP, a Facebook account or a Google database. The web may have facilitated the uprisings of the Arab Spring but governments can still censor what we read, BT was able to block access to the file sharing site Newzbin, and MPs could call for Twitter and RIM to be shut down during the summer riots.

In ‘The Economy of Ideas’, published in 1994, John Perry Barlow wrote: “Copyright worked well because, Gutenberg notwithstanding, it was hard to make a book… Counterfeiting and distributing counterfeit volumes were obvious and visible activities – it was easy enough to catch somebody in the act of doing. Finally, unlike unbounded words or images, books had material surfaces to which one could attach copyright notices, publisher’s marques, and price tags… All the goods of the Information Age – all of the expressions once contained in books or film strips or newsletters – will exist either as pure thought or something very much like thought: voltage conditions darting around the Net at the speed of light, in conditions that one might behold in effect, as glowing pixels or transmitted sounds, but never touch or claim to own in the old sense of the word.”

Free software and the web have challenged conventional concepts of ownership – and, not surprisingly, the content and software industries have tended towards an opposite understanding of ownership, which extends from the appropriation of things as disparate as human genes and species of plants to the ownership of artistic concepts and ideas.

The means for extending ownership over everything and anything has been a judicial bending of patent and copyright law. A not untypical example was the patenting in 1986 of the Amazonian hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca, which led to a South American tribal council, representing more than 400 tribes and indigenous groups, visiting the US ten years later to protest against the decision. Antonio Jacanamijoy, a spokesmen for the Indians, observed that “our ancestors learned the knowledge of this medicine and we are the owners of this knowledge…” and this is not an isolated case. Many more such patents have passed unnoticed and have gone unchallenged because the cost is prohibitive and the protesters have no sentimental appeal.

Concurrent with the steady extension of patent and copyright law to include everything has been the adoption of laws, in both the US and in Europe, that infringe the rights of technologists to freely develop and interoperate with proprietary technologies. We only have to see how Apple and Microsoft have used patent law to impede the makers of Android devices.

And the developing world is being prised into the same mindset where everything on Earth is something that can be owned and sold, in what Herbert Schiller called “the corporate takeover of public expression”, where the software firms own the programmer’s right to code, drug companies own the right to traditional medicines, and entertainment industries own the musician’s right to play. But it isn’t really working. In the face of the onslaught of the web, the traditional media are taking a battering.

Ideas belong to no one. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possess the less, because every other possess the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.”