'Thomas Jefferson of Cyberspace'Refuses to Recognize Intellectual Property

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), December 15, 2000 | Go to article overview

'Thomas Jefferson of Cyberspace'Refuses to Recognize Intellectual Property


"There is no such thing as intellectual property,'' John Perry Barlow told an audience at the UNESCO conference yesterday at the Plaza Hotel, downtown Seoul. ``There has never been such a thing as intellectual property.''

John Perry Barlow, vice chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting civil liberties like freedom of expression on the Internet, gave a lecture about the ``economy of ideas'' at the conference titled, ``Digital Information, Whom does it belong to?''

``In the history of intellectual property law, at no point was ownership conveyed, rather it has been a matter of extending a license for expression or manufacture for a period of time,'' said Barlow, author of 1994's ``The Economy of Ideas'' and 1996's ``A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.''

He read a statement by one of the architects of copyright and patent law of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, ``If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it.''

In the 220 years since then, Barlow said, the meaning behind Jefferson's words has been lost and must be retrieved. ``In the past, in order to move an idea from someone's mind to another's, people had to put it into a physical object like a book, record, or film strips,'' he said. ``These objects all obeyed the economic characteristics of other physical objects.

They were all subject to what I would call the 'economy of nouns.'''

However, Barlow pointed out that these things were not nouns in their fundamental characteristics. ``The reason an idea is not a thing, as Jefferson pointed out, is that I can give my idea to you and maintain possession of it myself.'' He added that by conveying an idea, it becomes more valuable, because an idea that is kept to oneself is useless.

Ideas, when they are not materialized into physical objects, are not subject to fundamental laws of physical economy or ``the relationship between scarcity and value.''

Barlow cited the example of the De Beers corporation, a large diamond producing company that owns almost all of the diamonds in the world.

``Diamonds are not intrinsically valuable, and there are in fact many diamonds in the world and it is now possible to make large diamonds that are indistinguishable from natural diamonds,'' he said. ``De Beers is now creating a way of watermarking their diamonds to distinguish them from artificial diamonds and maintain their scarcity and thus their value.''

With the introduction of the Internet, said Barlow, there is suddenly a way for one human being to get expressions from his/her mind, at zero cost, into the minds of millions, even billions of others without embedding those expressions into a physical object.

``Because ideas can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at zero cost, it becomes almost impossible to contain the spread of an idea that is found meaningful or true by a group of people,'' said Barlow, who was the first to apply William Gibson's science fiction term 'cyberspace' to the newly- growing electronic social space in 1990.

Furthermore, he added that the more we try to create walls around an expression, the more readily they are broken and the more they encourage the spread of that which they are attempting to contain.

To make his point, Barlow asked the audience, ``How many of you can honestly say you paid for all the software on your computers?'' Only a few in the crowd raised their hands. He said that it is in the best interest of software producers like Microsoft that people pirate their products because it is more likely people will eventually buy the software. …

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