“Intellectual Property” is a contradiction in terms. The notion of information, as solid, tangible and own-able property stretches the notions of ownership and property to entirely new and thoroughly ridiculous extremes. What these laws really accomplish is granting monopolies which relate to potentially valuable information (trademarks, patents etc). However, if they were to call them “Informational Monopoly” laws, they’d be a much harder sell to the public.

In one recent case, Anheuser-Busch Inbev, the world’s largest beer brewer, recently bought up a popular Chicago microbrew, 312, named after the local area code. Next, it went and trademarked the area codes of fifteen other cities, including Dallas, Denver, Washington DC and San Francisco. Whether they plan to introduce a wave of new trendy “urban” beers, or simply prevent others from doing the same is not known at this point. All we do know is that a beer corporation now owns part of the phone numbers of millions of Americans.

Another very public example would be Apple’s wide range of legal assaults lately over patents with competing smartphone and tablet manufacturers. Most recently, this has meant an exploding patent war with HTC, makers of various Android smart-phones (their main competitor). Apple’s goals are clear – they sell the most high-end, overmarketed and exclusive devices like this on the market, and if other manufacturers offer us similar options at lower prices, they’ll sell far less. Apple, as a corporation, relies very heavily on these kinds of controls to an extent which would embarrass even Microsoft. Simply being allowed to offer Apps (software) for iPhones and iPads involves an expensive and exclusive licensing arrangement. Not only has the company sued customers and hacked their devices for attempting to run their own software on Apple devices (a basic and established right of computer users – leading to an embarassing defeat for Apple). More recently they attempted to claim ownership of the term “App Store” and sued Amazon for using the term, a case it also lost.

A final recent story involves a coalition of America’s biggest Internet providers, such as Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner, who’ve agreed to a new system designed at punishing file sharing by their customers. This agreement has been reached with Hollywood and the Music Industry, and will involve a series of six warnings escalating to web cutoffs and throttling. As the NYT notes, these large internet providers are seeking to sell this sort of content directly, so working with content providers benefits them in many ways.

Intellectual property is all about stretching the definition of “property” to include very abstract and amorphous concepts. It isn’t just land, things or money that can now be owned – everything from genes to phrases to three-character words and numbers can be “owned” and sold, rented or traded as commodities. And of course, because these are legal issues, they’re backed up by force (cops, courts, jails etc). Both the government and dominant corporations are major players in this game, as they always have been with more traditional forms of property and value.

The more stretched the definition of “ownership” becomes, the harder to justify it is in any form. Many of these laws grossly curb individual liberties, especially what we can do with our own property, in our own homes. On the other hand, they grant enormous amounts of control to powerful corporations, just like traditional resource laws. Do Canada’s logging companies “own” the lumber they take from public lands, at public expense? How about the prescious metals and other resources our mining companies extract from indigenous lands around the world? Is there any limit to what can be taken from us and sold back?

The wonderful thing about information is that it’s nearly infinitely reproducible. And that means that attempts to control it will always fall short. From seeds to software, we can share and mutually benefit from it without having to spend a penny. And that’s the real threat here. For those who make a living enforcing artificial scarcity of resources, there’s nothing more threatening than true abundance.

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