The brave new world of intellectual property


Here is an excerpt from my book Living Networks, giving an introduction and context to my coverage of the fundamental shifts in the intellectual property landscape today:

In 1421 the government of Florence awarded the world’s first patent to Filippo Brunelleschi for a means of bringing goods up the usually unnavigable river Arno to the city. He demanded and was duly awarded legal protection for his invention, being given the right for three years to burn any competitor’s ship that incorporated his design.

Fast forward almost six centuries, and the global economy is dominated by intellectual property, and the flow of information and ideas. This “property” exists in the space of our minds rather than under our feet, yet it is by far the most valuable economic resource that exists today.

The US Constitution gives Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” There are two key points here. Intellectual property gives innovators the right to benefit from their works. However the primary intent is to promote progress and the public good, thus giving legal protection for only a limited period, and also making inventions publicly available as a basis for further innovation.

Not all information and ideas are legally protected. The term “intellectual assets” is used to describe all valuable information and ideas. “Intellectual property” is the subset of information and ideas that can be and are protected by law. Every one of us has information or ideas that are intellectual assets. But they are only intellectual property if you can successfully sue someone for copying or using them without your permission.

There are four types of intellectual property, each with their own characteristics, and each of which is affected differently by the advent of the living networks. Copyright represents the world of information. Anything that can be digitally represented, including words, images, sounds, and software, can be copyrighted. Patents cover the universe of ideas. If an idea is novel, useful, and non-obvious, it can be patented. Trademarks are words and images that are associated with particular companies, and are protected as part of that firm’s unique identity. Trade secrets, as the name implies, are protected by non-disclosure, and fall under a different section of the law to other intellectual property. To complement these core types of intellectual property, contract law is often useful for protecting the value of ideas when other legal remedies do not apply. In this chapter we will mainly look at the world of copyright and patents, as they are the most affected by issues of distributed innovation and collaboration.

Go to the Living Networks download page to read the rest of Chapter 5 on Distributed Innovation or any other chapters from the book.