Our Constitution guarantees some protection for inventions to provide incentives for geniuses of all stripes. By now the protection of patents and copyrights has become a legal industry under the catch-all phrase “intellectual property.”
The question remains, should one’s ideas be legally protected against infringement? Is it fair for me to use someone else’s ideas without paying licensing fees? Regardless of the law, a generational divide spins its answers in different ways.
Young consumers, or Millennials, deeply believe they have an inalienable right to download whatever they find, no matter the source, for free. The idea of paying for music or TV shows seems absurd to them. They are also comfortable with “remixing” (Lessig 2008) based on the Supreme Court decision that allows “fair use” of materials — as long as enough of the original has been changed.
Older consumers have some respect for the sweat and toil that went into an invention; they were socialized to pay for enjoying others’ products. They feel they are stealing from someone — individuals and corporations alike — when appropriating for profit that which isn’t theirs.
Of course, both groups have thieves and saints whose age doesn’t express or betray their moral compass.
What should we make of the opposing strategies undertaken by Apple and Tesla, the former lionized with its late leader Jobs as its resident genius and the latter led by an iconoclastic billionaire named Musk?
The irony, if not outright hypocrisy, associated with Apple’s success should be laid bare before we switch to Tesla’s radical announcement.
According to painstaking research by Marianna Mazzucato (2014), Apple’s entire collection of inventions has been paid for by American citizens like us. The “entrepreneurial state,” as she calls it, researched and developed every facet of the iconic iPhone. Government subsidies, loans and outright underwriting of these technologies allowed Apple to scoop them all for the low price of some licensing fees. Whose intellectual property was bought? Who owns it now?
We, the taxpayers, already paid for the technologies and yet Apple makes us pay again when we buy its well-designed gadgets. Not only are these gadgets made by Foxconn in China (outsourcing jobs), the profits from selling them in the U.S. are shifted to Ireland and other offshore places so that Apple can cut its taxes by an average of 25 percent and keep some 88 percent of its cash overseas (Financial Times).
Apple has been enjoying the largess of government-generated, financed and protected patents; it also has enjoyed access to the largest global market. But when it comes to paying back anything — fairness — it shields itself from the IRS. Heads I win, tails you lose.
We, the taxpayers, already paid for the technologies and yet Apple makes us pay again.
Musk told the Financial Times, “We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly evolving technology platform.” Is he all alone in this quixotic quest for an ecologically responsible future? Apparently not.
In the fashion industry, the practice of “knockoff” is as old as the trade itself. Instead of protecting one’s design, designers borrow from each other liberally, increasing competitiveness and the quest for new ideas. This is true for chefs and recipes, comedians and their routines, football coaches and their tactics. Have these practices dulled our palates, closed restaurants or stopped us from watching the Super Bowl? Imitation leads to innovation!
Likewise, Open-Source (Copyleft) isn’t news among code writers and users. In defiance of restrictions posed by corporate lawyers and captains of industry, there’s an ongoing movement to keep codes as open sources for anyone to use freely. Your contribution is free of charge; so is your use. Sounds crazy? Only nerdy types will be so communal?
Well, it’s impossible to estimate how many millions around the world contributed to write and edit Wikipedia. Not only aren’t they paid, they don’t get credit for their work. Why do they do it? Do they believe in the greater good, like Musk? What a bizarre, anti-capitalist way of thinking. Have we lost our way?
No, we haven’t. Perhaps the good intentions of protecting one’s labor had the unintended consequences of allowing Big Pharma to patent our genes and DNA (Supreme Court decisions keep changing). At some point enough is enough, and our good sense overcomes the narrow interests of corporate America.
Will better auto technologies necessarily evolve with open-sourced cooperation? Check your Apple iPhone to see if a new app can give you the answer. Then ask Apple to send $1 to the U.S. government to ensure the future of American R&D!
Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.