Before you write this off as a political/religious/philosophical rant… well, you should probably read it. As both a consumer who purchases hardware and as a producer who creates software and media, I deal with the concept of intellectual property and “free as in freedom” when it comes to ownership and licensing. While I’m not completely “frum” when it comes to using only free software, the issue of SaaS is a major issue today for intellectual freedom. This will be a multi-part article, covering the various facets of the issue. This first article will serve as the introduction to what freedom means in terms of the web and your content, meaning your media, when you share it on the web.
At the very core of this topic is the question: “what is intellectual property?” What is patentable? Can you exclusively own an idea? Can you get a patent on a natural process? For example, if you invent a mathematical formula, can you “own” that idea and prevent others from using it? Can you write a symphony in 3/4 time and patent the concept of 3/4 time and own the exclusive rights to it? It sounds somewhat ridiculous, but at its core, the US Patent System has come to this point. Last time I checked, there was a big court case going down in the Supreme Court where eHarmony is attempting to patent a mathematical formula through which they “match” people. At first glimpse, this doesn’t seem to be too big of a deal, however, if you boil it down to its essential elements, it’s huge and unprecedented.
Mathematics as Intellectual Property
Imagine if you were Issac Newton, way back when, and you were able to effectively patent your latest and greatest discovery: gravity. Or, if you were Albert Einstein and you filed a patent on the theory of relativity. Henceforth, you would have a precedent by which to sue any individual or corporation which incorporated or benefited from your “idea.” Scared yet? Again, from far off, it doesn’t seem like too bad of a thing, but at its core, your rights are being violated. It’s one thing to say that you can patent a process by which you can quickly harvest and shear corn, but it’s something entirely different to say that you can patent math, something that isn’t invented so much as discovered. Math is natural law, and therefore cannot be patented.
Media as Intellectual Property
Let’s throw in another use case. Do you own any DVDs? Rather, do you actually own any of the DVDs you’ve purchased? Most DVDs are encrypted with something called CSS and are locked to only run within a specific region. Take your US-bought DVD to Europe and it might not play in a DVD player over there. Again, who owns your DVDs? Is it you or is it the company that is leasing their intellectual property to you? Why are they encrypting and locking down what is ostensibly your property? The claim is made that it’s to “protect intellectual property” via DRM, which, of course, stands for digital rights management: the means by which companies manage, restrict, and control your rights to digital media. In short, the answer is that no, you don’t really own DVDs. You are free to do with them what you’d like, so long as the owner is okay with it.
Companies use DRM to “protect their intellectual property.” However, this doesn’t make too much sense. All DRM technologies have been broken into, it’s only a matter of time. Moreover, you, the average user, aren’t going to rip your DVD library and sell copies or distribute it for free. You just want to own your content and to be free to do what you’d like with it.
Facebook as Intellectual Property
Think that you own and have rights over what you upload to Facebook? I hate to be a downer, but when it really comes down to it, you might not. Hey, I’m guilty of it too, but at the very least, I’m aware. On one hand, I use Facebook to keep in touch and to publish photos and status updates, but at its core, it’s a big problem in that Facebook may own everything I publish. With this, we have introduced the problem of intellectual property rights concerning Software as a Service.