How Much Does Language Frame The Debate Over Intellectual Property?

from the choose-your-words-carefully dept

It’s well known that the language you use can help frame your debate. It’s quite common in politics, but it’s definitely true in technology as well. For a long time, I tried to avoid using the term “digital rights management,” when it really referred to restrictions and copy protection. The same is true of “piracy” or “theft” which denotes something much worse than simple copyright infringement or making unauthorized copies. Now, Tim Lee is suggesting that we should also avoid using the term “intellectual property” since it unfairly equates copyrights and patents as tangible property, when they’re very, very different (some might argue that intellectual property is neither intellectual, nor property). Intellectual property can get especially confusing since it usually refers to copyright, patents and trademarks — all three of which have extremely different rules and characteristics. Unfortunately, though, these words really have become common enough that people expect their common meanings to apply — and sometimes it really just is easier to use them and have everyone understand what you’re talking about (which is why we will occasionally go back to using “DRM” or “piracy” when it fits). That isn’t to say it’s not important to point out the problems with those words or phrases when they’re misused, but eliminating them from the vocabulary doesn’t do much to help either.

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Comments on “How Much Does Language Frame The Debate Over Intellectual Property?”

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nonuser says:

if someone hacks a government server

swipes a bunch of client account information, and sells it to some organized crime outfit overseas, is that stealing or merely infringement? What if that crime outfit uses the data to obtain credit cards in the clients’ names, and runs up substantial bills? Is there a loss of tangible property, or is this merely updating bits on some hard drives in server farms?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: if someone hacks a government server

If someone has credit card numbers in their possession, that’s not illegal. What’s illegal is using that information to make purchases on someone else’s account without their permission.

To confuse intellectual property infringement with credit fraud is completely braindead. Should I we convict of credit fraud because they store credit information?

Go hide under a bridge, troll

Anonymous Coward says:

Intellectual Wealth

Ignoring the issue of overgeneralization, FSF Europe has the interesting idea of using the term Intellectual Wealth, rather than intellectual property in political discussions. The idea being that a government committee devoted to ‘intellectual property’ is going to be focussed on granting and protecting ownership-like rights. A committee devoted to ‘intellectual wealth’ may (hopefully) be more focussed on the production and distribution of knowledge – Monopoly privileges being one of may tools to acomplish that end.

Anonymous Coward says:

"intellectual property" is really just thought: em

but the legislators knew the public would not vote for the FBI to be “thought police”, hence the name change.

Now I just need to get my little town to use its new eminent domain powers to confiscate the intellectual property rights for Microsoft for the benefit of the town’s citizens.

when that happens, maybe more people will vote Libertarian.

YouKnowNothing says:

Here's an idea...

If the RIAA, MPAA, BSA, et. al. like to pretend that intellectual property is the same as real, tangible property, how about instituting a property tax for it? You’d think the government would be all for this incredible source of tax revenue, and all of a sudden the RIAA, MPAA, etc., would be crying and screaming that intellectual property isn’t the same thing a real, tangible propery.

Man, that would be great to see.

mousepaw says:


Stu: profound.

Wording is extremely important. How a person uses a word can have a lot of power. Here’s an example: don’t ask a man if he “can” do something, ask him if he “would.” Conversely, ask a woman if she “can” as opposed to “would” and you’ll get a better response. I still think that “hacker” is a good word because, to me, it still means a person with above average knowledge of computer systems.

There was a greek fellow who recognized the power of words. It was his passion and life’s work. Unfortunately, I can’t remember his name (Sophocles?) but he became an extremely persuasive fellow. He chose his words very carefully. I believe this was one of the writers L Ron Hubbard studied before he wrote “Dianetics.”

Getting back to the point: while we are (as a society) seemingly going through a “dumbing-down” process, anyone in any position of power (including lawyers) knows that if something is worded correctly they are able sway results in their favor.

Joe C Brown (user link) says:

“the law itself treats these rights differently than those involving physical property. To give three examples from US law, copyright infringement is not punishable by laws against theft or trespass, but rather by an entirely different set of laws with different penalties. Patent infringement is not a criminal offense although it may subject the infringer to civil liability. Willfully possessing stolen physical goods is a criminal offense while mere possessing of goods which infringe on copyright is not. Furthermore, in the United States physical property laws are generally part of state law, while copyright law is in the main measure federal.”

– JB – Optimization Consulting

Billy The Blogging Poet (user link) says:

Hey Mike, I Found You A Roomie

Intellectual Property is property just like real estate or your grandmother’s car– steal it (or infringe upon it) and you can get in trouble. While some lawyer types will argue that IP isn’t the same as real property their argument is simply semantics– even the lawyers at There are some differences between tangible property and Intellectual Property with “Fair Use” being the most common but Intellectual Property can be bought, sold, traded, and destroyed just as your grandmother’s car so for the sake of argument tell the lawyers at to shove it up their… Well, you know where it goes. Besides, for the lawyer types out there, examples of fair use of private property exist as well. If you don’t believe me then make you way over to the local mall and try to find out whose permission you need before you can enter the mall. Careful, the security guards might call the guys with butterfly nets and white jackets to fetch you home.

Intellectual Property isn’t real property– give me a break. No one taxes my arm and every lawyer in the world would back away from trying to prove that my arm doesn’t belong to me.

Tell Mikie the new tenants will be moving in his office Monday morning…

Jim of Yorkshire says:

Re: Hey Mike, I Found You A Roomie

Actually there IS a very, very significant difference between tangible physical property and so-called “intellectual property”: alienation. Alienation is the term that describes what happens when a person sells the property. If I sell my car, I alienate myself from the car — I can no longer legally use the car. I can however sell you my “intellectual property” without alienating myself from the “intellectual property”. Just because I tell you my idea in return for a payment doesn’t mean that I instantly forget the idea and can’t re-think it.

Any way you cut it, so called “intellectual property” is ONLY considered property because a few laws say it is so. Those laws, btw, are pretty recent developments in human history – perhaps last 200 years at most (maybe 300 considering Statue of Anne). In contrast, physical property has been universally recognized since before recorded history began.

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