3.4 An introduction to intellectual property

Lessig refers to intellectual property throughout The Future of Ideas. Here is a brief reference; you should not think of it as a comprehensive guide to the rules of intellectual property, which is a vast subject.

What do we mean by the term ‘intellectual property’? It is a label given to a range of legal constructs, including:

  • copyrights

  • patents

  • trademarks

  • designs

  • trade secrets.

Lessig emphasises that intellectual property is not ‘property’ in the conventional sense of a car or a bicycle. For example, a person or an organisation can hold the copyright on a book for a limited period of time. During that time they can have the limited right to prevent others copying or printing or selling that book. Copyright effectively gives the copyright holder exclusive control of the market for the book, which is why copyrights are sometimes described as monopolies. A copyright is a limited monopoly with a limited life.

If my ‘limited monopoly’ description seems a bit complicated, you can try another way of thinking about intellectual property – that it is like a tax. It is a tax that society pays to people who create, innovate and generate ideas that they are prepared to share with the rest of us. Although there are complicated rules about who gets paid, for how long and under what conditions, this tax provides an incentive for creators to create and inventors to invent.

3.3 Rivalrous and non-rivalrous

3.5 Copyright