Paying people for use of their intellectual property is fair – isn’t it?

I saw a small storm on Facebook the other day over intellectual property.

Wright_Books2It involved people who’d invented a variety of techniques for a particular craft and were selling the method in seminars. And so they should. It’s their intellectual property and it’s fair to get a return on it; people gotta eat.

The problem was that some industrial espionage had been going on, it seemed – basically, people were trying to find out the technique and then selling it themselves.

Stated that way it’s obvious theft of intellectual property. And the principle is no different from any other theft of intellectual property – including, I might add, the work of writers. But when the people who’d invented the craft system put their collective foot down – what happened? There was a screech from those who’d been pinching it.

One even claimed that everything on the internet ‘should’ be free.

Really? The thing is that the internet, these days, is a communications vehicle – not a device for claiming entitlement to others’ ideas. It doesn’t reduce reasonable intellectual property rights.

Bubbling along beneath that, also, was the notion that this did relate to a hobby industry – to home-crafts – and therefore, also, should be free. This is something writers, too, have to wrestle with. I think what it boils down to is the conflation between hobby and profession. Many people have craft hobbies. Many people pick up writing as a hobby.

All of these people do it for the entertainment value – for the reward of having made something, be it a craft object or a book, or whatever. Their time doesn’t need a return.

One result, it seems to me, is that those who variously either develop the stuff to supply that hobby – or who write professionally for an income – find their time is devalued. They are treated as if they, too, should be giving away their time and expertise.

The fact is, though, that those consuming the hobby need to have something to consume – and it’s fair that those producing what they consume are paid for it. Hobbies also usually aren’t free (I have often been tempted by RC aircraft, except for the cost of it. Or rallying, except for the cost of it).

Similarly, there are distinctions between the ‘writing for the fun of it’ kind of writer and the ‘writing as an income’ kind of writer.

I can hear the scream now: ‘but – but – everybody writes to publish’. Sure. However, not everybody writes to make an income. There is a difference. The problem, I think – certainly for writing, likely for a lot of other hobbies – is the conflation between the activity-as-pastime and the activity-as-business, which is a very different concept.

Part of that conflation comes, I think, because both sides of the coin still demand the art – the creativity, the passion – that for most of us is something we reserve to pour into a hobby. For some writers, the goal is status with their peer groups, another motive that I’ve found is incompatible with the demands of writing from a purely professional perspective.

As always there are balance points between all these things. But I think, at the end of the day, if you’ve created something – created intellectual property – that is consumed by others, it’s fair that they pay for it.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


16 thoughts on “Paying people for use of their intellectual property is fair – isn’t it?

  1. It would be interesting to see if there’s a correlation between age and the belief that intellectual property should be free. Is it a post-internet phenomenon? All of us over a certain age and into music will remember borrowing albums and copying them onto tape, but I don’t remember ever thinking we were entitled to this stuff without paying. (We knew we weren’t supposed to be doing it without actually being aware of the specific copyright legislation.)

    But with Napster and the piracy/streaming debate there seems to be a prevalent attitude that nothing should be paid for unless its tangible and made in a factory.

    1. It might be a whole concatenation of factors – the ‘enablement’ of technology coupled with changing attitudes that’s allowed among the ‘millenium generation’. I think one of the differences between today’s ‘piracy’ and that of yesteryear is attitude, for sure. There’s no question in my mind that the fact that a lot of stuff on the web was free, and its ease of copying anyway, has fuelled an attitude that everything on it ‘should’ be free. How the creators of it get paid so they can keep on creating the great content, of course, is a question I have yet to discover the answer to…

  2. I agree that those who create intellectual property have a right to be compensated. Those who create it and freely give it away should, at the very least be acknowledged as the founder. It is a difficult balance to find as there are the grey areas in between the professional and the hobbyist.

    BTW – I have a variety of RC planes and equipment that I am willing to part with… 🙂

    1. You’re right – writing, among other arts, carries that sense not just of ‘hobby’ but of ‘artistic creation’; there is a sense in some circles that it somehow sullies that art to prioritise earning money out of it. It’s definitely a balancing act although I have to say that the idea of maximising income has a great deal of appeal… 🙂

  3. I do not think that all writers write to publish (I’m including the hobbyists here because they are, in my opinion, still writers) and I certainly don’t. I write for my own pleasure and sometime for therapeutic reasons. Intellectual property is, I suspect, always going to be a hot potato. Can you stop someone having the same idea as you? How easy is it to prove the theft of intellectual property? etc etc.

    1. Intellectual property has all sorts of forms from the portable (written content) to the conceptual – the ‘craft work process’ that triggered this blog post. The latter cannot be copyrighted, but can be patented. In terms of written content, copyright provides protection but the problem for individual authors – even when backed by major publishers – is enforcing it against those who might steal it. The theft itself can take various forms from plagiarism to outright ripping off a book and reselling it without paying the author – this last apparently is quite common online. The various times my work has been infringed and/or plagiarised, I’ve usually had quite a job to enforce my rights, and I do actively follow up every one of the infringements.

  4. If you create it then it’s yours. How you share it is your choice to make. Period. There seems to be this idea that if it isn’t inside my house or my car it’s free. Grab what you can and run. The internet is the digital looter’s paradise. Apparently, there are those who view the internet as free, but have issue with me entering their home so they can share whatever I want to take. 🙂

    1. That’s the bit I never understood – if somebody walks into your house and takes stuff, it’s theft. But if they rip your intellectual property via the web, apparently that’s OK because the web ‘should be’ free? As you say, it’s a bit odd – maybe some sort of cognitive dissonance in those doing it? To me the technology doesn’t change the nature of the ethics.

  5. Regardless of whether a writer writes professionally or for fun, if they publish something (a novel, a collection of essays, etc.) and it’s for sale, people shouldn’t expect to receive it for free and they shouldn’t be entitled to rip it off for free. I think the mentality of wanting something for nothing has always been around, but I think the idea that if it’s on the Internet, it’s fair game is a recent occurrence.

    1. The internet has definitely fuelled the attitude, for sure. And a lot of stuff on it is, genuinely, given away for nothing – which in turn devalues the stuff being sold, because it builds the expectation of ‘free’. I’m not sure that attempts to monetise ‘free’ by pouring adverts in and around everything works either. I know Google/Alphabet have made multi-squillions with it, but I suspect the actual ‘attention rate’ of users to the adverts is negligible.

  6. The expectation that everything on the internet should be free may be fed by the fact that so much is (sort of) free. WordPress blogs, Facebook pages, LinkedIn profiles, self publishing on Amazon, etc.

    1. I agree on all counts. Especially the ‘sort of’ free – I think the adage that ‘if it’s free, you’re the product’ is all too true in this internet age, especially for the ‘free’ offered by the large players.

  7. Absolutely! Owners of consumed intellectual capital should be properly compensated should they wish to be. While I agree that that there is now an expectation of “free” to many because of Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., it is completely untrue that those products are “free”. Their users pay for them with the currency of personal privacy, and those companies are paid very well as a result. So, there is a cost, a big one; it is just a hidden and indirect cost. I think the biggest issue with piracy (let’s call it what it is) is the overall lack of accountability on the Internet. For those that would have no qualms about using something for free that they shouldn’t, or even for saying something mean in a review or comment environment that they wouldn’t say directly to someone’s face, the Internet has given them the perfect place to do it.

    1. I agree. Of course the internet doesn’t give license for people to behave badly – being rude, helping themselves to others’ property and so on. But they do, which is a sad indictment of the human condition.

  8. THIS could get into a very long discussion. As I see it this is a little less a legal issue than it is psychological and cultural. The economic and legal issues follow from those two.

    It is also an issue that seems to be, so to speak, very much “in the air.” Kristen Lamb wrote an interesting blog on it recently, for example.

    One might ask, what has value? The question goes to the psychological and cultural issues I allude to. The question, though, is more nuanced than that, because whatever value a work of art may have begins somewhere inside the artist. The value an artist places on a particular project, enduring, in Irving Stone’s phrase, the agony and the ecstasy of its creation, is something quite subjective, and yet quite real for all of that.

    To look at the final product of that process is in many ways its own reward. Oddly, though, that “final product” is only the beginning, the often-overlooked beginning, of this argument. The reason is simple: culturally, a “work in progress” has not acquired any real or potential economic value.

    The commodity value of a work of art only accrues at the end of the “creative process”. Therein lie the problem.

    A simple illustration: Vincent van Gogh seems not to have made so much as a sou or a centime from his work. Yet today, among collectors, the “commodity value” of his work reaches into the tens of millions of dollars. There is for me a disconnect between those two facts that is at the crux of this issue.

    What do we value, and when, and why?

    Beyond question, and especially in the literary world, art has a commodity value. The idea that once something exists in the world of commodity value then it becomes the property of all, skips a step. That step isn’t as simple as paying $6 or $7 for an electronic copy of a book.

    Maybe that’s complication enough for now! I’m in danger of engaging my inner philosopher, I’m afraid.

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