Imagine a world without intellectual property. Now imagine that, after 23 years of tireless research, you invented the Everlasting Gobstopper. Without a patent in place, competitors could crack your recipe to produce drastically cheaper Everlasting Gobstoppers, since they, unlike you, didn’t have to cover those 23 years’ worth of development costs. This is exactly the scenario copyrights and patents were created to address, giving inventors years of exclusivity so that they might recoup their investment and make a profit before their products enter the public domain.
But somehow, as Kirby Ferguson argues in the fourth (and final) installment in his thought-provoking “Everything Is a Remix” series, the original intention of intellectual-property protection–providing incentives to make breakthrough stuff for the betterment of mankind–got corrupted to the point where the very measures meant to protect creativity have been wielded to stifle it. (Go here to view Part 3.) That’s because, although most of us like to copy things we like, we can’t countenance others profiting from our own creations. That paradoxical form of loss aversion, Ferguson says, leads someone like Steve Jobs to state unabashedly that Apple is “shameless about stealing great ideas,” acknowledging that copying is an intrinsic part of cultural evolution, and later threaten to “destroy Android because it’s a stolen product.” Worse still, intellectual-property laws have opened the door for abuse by sample and patent trolls, who establish patents with the end goal of suing those who violate them.
All this is to say that the very protections that were intended to encourage our brightest thinkers to pursue game-changing projects are now being used to deter innovators at a time when we face some of our most daunting problems. But enough summarizing, watch Ferguson’s video. We promise you’ll be gobstopped.