WHOSE IDEAS ARE THEY, AFTERALL?
The Constitution guarantees some protection for inventions as a way to provide incentives for geniuses of all stripes. By now the protection of patents and copyrights has become a legal industry under the catchall phrase Intellectual Property.
The question remains, should one’s ideas be legally protected against infringement by others? Is it fair, in other words, for me to use someone else’s ideas without paying any licensing fees? Regardless of how the law answers these questions, a generational divide spins its answers in different ways.
Young consumers, called by some millennials, deeply believe that they have an inalienable right to download whatever they find, no matter the source, for free. The very idea of paying for music or television shows seems absurd to them. They are also comfortable with “remixing” (Lessig 2008) based on the Supreme Court decision that allows “fair use” of materials—as long as enough of the original has been changed.
Older consumers have some respect for the sweat and toil that went into an invention of a song or an engine valve; they were socialized to pay for enjoying others’ inventions and products. In fact, they feel as if they are stealing from someone—individuals and corporations alike—when appropriating for profit that which isn’t theirs.
Of course, we can find among both groups thieves and saints whose age doesn’t express or betray their moral compass.
So, what should we make of the opposing strategies undertaken by Apple and Tesla, the former lionized as an American miracle with its late leader Jobs as its resident genius and the latter led by an iconoclastic billionaire named Musk?
The irony, if not outright hypocrisy, associated with Apple’s success should be laid bare before we switch to Tesla’s radical announcement.
According to pain-staking research by Marianna Mazzucato (2014), Apple’s entire collection of inventions has been graciously paid for by American citizens like you and I. The “entrepreneurial state,” as she calls it, researched and developed every facet of the iconic iPhone which enriched Apple. Government subsidies, loans, and outright underwriting of these technologies allowed Apple to scoop them all for the low price of some licensing fees. So, whose intellectual property was bought? Who owns it now?
We, taxpayers, already paid for the technologies and yet Apple makes us pay again when we buy the well-designed gadgets it sells to us. Not only are these gadgets made by Foxconn in China (outsourcing jobs), the profits made on them when sold in US are actually shifted to Ireland and other offshore places so that Apple can cut its taxes by an average of 25% and keep some 88% of its cash oversees (Financial Times).
Apple, the archetypal American corporate giant, has been enjoying the largess of government-generated, financed, and protected patents; it has also enjoyed access to the largest global market for its products. But when it comes to paying back anything to its benefactors—fairness—it shields itself from the IRS. Heads I win, tails you lose.
By contrast, Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, announced on 6/13/14 that all the patents his electric car company has developed and patented over the years will be open to its rivals. Has he lost his mind? What about the Constitution and Capitalism doesn’t he understand?
Quoted in the Financial Times, Musk said that “we believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly evolving technology platform.” Is he all alone in this quixotic quest for an ecologically responsible future? Apparently not.
For those following the fashion industry, the practice of “knockoff” is as old as the trade itself. Instead of protecting one’s design, designers borrow from each other liberally and thereby increase competitiveness and the quest for new ideas. This is true for chefs and their recipes, standup-comedians and their routines, and football coaches and their tactics. (The Knockoff Economy 2012) Have these practices dulled our palates, closed restaurants, or stopped us from watching the Super Bowl? Imitation leads to innovation!
Likewise, Open-Source (Copyleft) isn’t news among code writers and users. In defiance of the restrictions posed by corporate lawyers and captains of industry, there has been an ongoing strong movement to keep codes as open sources for anyone to use freely. Your contribution is free of charge; so is your use. Sounds crazy? Only nerdy types will be so communal, ha?
Well, it’s been impossible to estimate how many millions of people around the world contributed millions of hours to write and edit Wikipedia. Not only aren’t they paid, they don’t even get credit for their work. Why do they do it? Do they believe in the greater good, like Musk? What a bizarre, anti-capitalist way of thinking? Have we lost our way?
No, we haven’t. Perhaps the good intentions of protecting one’s labor had the unintended consequences of allowing Big Pharma to patent our genes and DNA (Supreme Court decisions keep changing). At some point enough is enough, and our good sense overcomes the narrow interests of corporate America.
Will better automobile technologies necessarily evolve with open-sourced cooperation? Check your Apple iPhone to see if a new app can give you the answer. Then ask Apple to send $1 to the US government to ensure the future of American R&D!
Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com