Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Fearmongering Among Intellectual Monopolists

Melanie Wyne, of the Initiative for Software Choice (which is, if anything, against software choice), has a murky editorial over at cnet whose main goal, it seems, is to try to get current patent, copyright, and trademark stakeholders worked up into a frenzy about Massachusetts' OpenDocumnet Format plan. Why is Melanie opposed to OpenDocument? OpenDocument will allow Massachussetts the freedom to move away from MS Office and use the freely available OpenOffice instead. That's bad for Microsoft. And what is bad for Microsoft is bad for ISC. And what is bad for ISC is bad for Melanie Wyne. This is corporate shilling at its best.

I said the editorial was murky. Let me substantiate that by pointing out all the misdirection and false analogies:
  1. First, the term "intellectual property" and "IP" are strewn liberally throughout the editorial. What is Ms. Wyne talking about when she uses this term? She wants us to think of patent, copyright, and trademark as parts of one great whole, yet her reasoning around these separate concepts is clearly confused. In one place, she must have meant patents, because clearly her statements don't make sense if she is talking about copyright. In another, perhaps it was copyright, because trademark doesn't fit the bill. The reader is left to sort it all out, but the intention is that the reader will not take this step -- that he will accept the world-view in which IP is some sort of natural right. It is anything but.

  2. Ms. Wyne equates the lessening of government granted monopoly over ideas with government confiscation of private property, as in the recent Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London. This obvious confusion over property stems from her acceptance of the idea of "intellectual property" as something that is similar to real property, including the characteristics of scarcity, non-transferibility, etc. -- characteristics that ideas don't have in common with physical property. Reason Online has more on this misleading way of framing the debate.

  3. Ms. Wyne talks about "confiscatory government policy," equating the state of Massachussetts' choice of a file format with the unjust British seizure of Boston in the 18th century in response to the American Rebellion. Confused at how these are linked together? You should be. Melanie tells us that they are the same because in both cases, a government is exercising its sovereignty. Still confused? The only way any of this could possibly make sense is if a document format really were a piece of property, such as that on which Fenway Park sits, and if the adoption of OpenDocument by Massachussetts somehow seized the Fenway Park site by means of force. But neither is true. Microsoft's proprietary document formats are safely tucked away in Microsoft's hands. Massachussetts won't take them away. In fact, Massachussetts isn't even trying -- what they are doing instead is choosing a different format for their own use. Which makes Ms. Wyne's point not only misleading, but outright false.

If Ms. Wyne were truly concerned about confiscatory government policy, she would be outraged at the growing number of commonly held ideas that are confiscated by our government and turned into private monopolies through the abuses of our patent, copyright, and trademark policies. To suggest that the opposite is true, that freeing ideas is the same as confiscating them, is to pretend that water is dry and fire is cold.

On this Thanksgiving weekend we can all thank Ms. Wyne for one thing: she gave us a big old Turkey for an editorial. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


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