[Doctorow-L] Column: "IP" (The longest, most significant Locus column I have written in my 14-year run)

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Mon Sep 7 17:22:06 EDT 2020

I have been writing a column for Locus Magazine for 14 years (!) and
it's been some of my best work.

Blogging (and tweet-threading) is a good way to keep track of the ideas
and events that seem significant - breaking them down for an audience
helps me make sense of them.

The value of all that short-form work comes together when it's time to
do something longer and more synthetic, pulling on all these threads
that I've carefully teased out and organized in my own personal memex.

Today, Locus published my longest, most substantial column ever, a piece
that I wrote in something of a white heat about a month ago, called
(somewhat ironically): "IP."


It's a long read and I'm not even going to try to summarize it all, but
I'll sketch out the main thesis here.

The term "IP" drives activists nuts because it's so vague - trademarks,
copyrights and patents aren't really related, and they also aren't
really "property."

But if you pay attention to how people actually use "IP" a coherent
(albeit colloquial) definition emerges:

"IP is any law that I can invoke that allows me to control the conduct
of my competitors, critics, and customers."

IP is any rule that lets you block interoperability, that lets you bind
your critics to silence, that lets you force your customers to arrange
their affairs to benefit your shareholders instead of themselves.

The historical term that preceded "IP" is "author's monopoly," a term
that drives copyright advocates nuts. They say (correctly) that having a
copyright on a book or a song doesn't make you a monopolist in the sense
of having "market power."

Giving a creator more copyright doesn't let them extract higher fees
from publishers or labels or studios. Yes, they have a monopoly in the
narrow sense of "only I can sell the rights to my books" but that
doesn't translate into the kind of monopoly that Amazon or UMG has.

But here's the thing: we *do* live in a monopolized age: a time when a
small number of companies exert enormous market power, deciding what's
for sale, who can sell it, what it costs, and what the buyers are
allowed to do with it.

And these monopolists are extremely hungry for IP. It started with
traditional entertainment companies, who amassed huge catalogs of
"creator's monopolies" that they used to bolster their "market power

If you want to release music with samples in it, you have to sign with a
label; doing so puts your music in their exclusive catalog, so the next
person who wants to sample has an even greater incentive to sign with a

And while traditional monopolists have to worry about competitors using
the law to punish them for operating monopolies, dominant firms that
include "creator's monopolies" get to use the law to punish competitors
for trying to undo their monopolies.

The musician who samples the UMG catalog without a license puts their
fortune on the line and risks brutal litigation.

And while this was invented by entertainment companies, software has
spread "IP" into every class of device.

"IP" is how car companies and ventilator manufacturers fight Right to
Repair and it's how smart light-socket companies force you to buy their

But software IP isn't just a lever to force you to arrange your affairs
to benefit a manufacturer's shareholders.

Software is also a tool for automating enforcement of your subservience
to those shareholders' interests. Many products have come with
restrictions, but if you defeated those restrictions in the privacy of
your home, you would likely never be caught.

Software-enabled IP isn't just illegal to subvert - it also *knows when
you try*, and rats you out. It is a tightening noose around our lives -
not just our digital lives, but every aspect of them.

This all came to me after I started researching the history of the Free
Software movement for a conference talk. On the way, I was privileged to
have several long discussions with colleagues who helped me work through
the hard parts.

So before I sign off, I want to thank them: Benjamin "Mako" Hill, Zephyr
Teachout, Pamela Samuelson and Seth David Schoen. Any of the smart stuff
in this longest of Locus columns is down to them - but the stupid stuff
is probably my fault.

Also, I'd like to thank the audience at HOPE 2020 who let me beta-test a
version of this argument on them as a conference talk.

I hope you enjoy it!




Cory Doctorow
doctorow at craphound.com
Blog: https://pluralistic.net
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