Does technology inevitably turn us into grasping communists? Does technological advancement reduce us to greedy children, demanding what we don’t own or haven’t earned simply because we want it? Have technological pressures created a cultural climate in which a person’s property rights are either grossly exaggerated or dismissed entirely?

The answer is yes. Information technology, while greatly enhancing accessibility and portability of data, is at the root of one of society’s emerging cultural and sociopolitical problems: the fundamental lack of understanding of intellectual property.

All ownership of property can be distilled to an access right. If I own something, I determine who has access to it. (If I cannot determine access, at least at some point in the process, my ownership is meaningless.) Fundamental to this concept is the value I have created; my work is mine because I added value to it. As I wrote previously in Technocracy, “if [property] had no value it would not be worth protecting.”

It is possible to misunderstand this concept so completely that you create an “access right” over the minds and behavior of others – over the activity of citizens “downstream” of your activity and effort – that does not exist. When I try to control the actions of other citizens beyond the scope of my access right to a piece of property, I’ve crossed a line. This is the dividing line between ownership of property and the assertion of control over another sovereign individual. In other words, it’s an attempt to enslave another, at least metaphorically. We now know what this looks like in reality because Europe has – as it so often does – provided us with an example of this cultural failing.

Larry Downes, writing in CNET, explains that the European Commission’s “A comprehensive approach on personal data protection in the European Union” points to potential regulation or legislation that “may empower EU citizens to demand the suppression of any information that refers to them, including public records, newspaper reports, personal recollections, and other ‘private’ information that wasn’t supplied by the user in the first place. All of that information, under EU law, is ‘their’ data.” Downes concludes, “Taken to its logical extreme, a true right to be forgotten would prohibit me from repeating, even in conversation, any personal facts about you I happen to know. It might even require me to purge my mind of anything about you I remember – literally to forget you.”

This is the failure to understand property rights writ so large that it becomes an Orwellian attempt to rewrite history while controlling others’ minds. The counterpart to this stupidity is the belief that there is no property, and that any attempt to protect intellectual property or to license access rights to one’s work is an attempt to take advantage of those who desire access to one’s effort.

Already, there are authors who believe that publishers are somehow exploiting their employees using work-for-hire business models, or even violating copyright law in these idiots’ limited understanding of what that law might be. Such imbeciles point to foreign law and complain that U.S. law is rare among other nations in its recognitions of intellectual property – but isn’t that one of the reasons the United States is supposed to be better than other nations?

The same writer, so perversely eager to cut her own throat in redefining intellectual property, whines that publishers of ebooks are using software licenses as a model to regulate their intellectual property. While it certainly was Orwellian when Amazon yanked a couple of George Orwell’s books from Kindle owners’ accounts (a move Amazon said it would not repeat), what is easily overlooked is that this move was prompted by a licensing issue.

What is an ebook if it ISN’T software? It isn’t a physical book. If I buy a physical book, I’ve followed an older purchasing model. I’ve procured a physical item, mine to do with as I wish within predefined boundaries.

Have we forgotten a time when the telephones in our homes weren’t ours, but were in fact the property of the telephone company? Even a wireless phone isn’t truly yours without a service plan. You can buy “unlocked” phones online, but without a network on which to operate and a service plan to carry them, they’re fancy paper weights that also store address-book data.

As with our phones, changes in technology and the ramifications of those changes on culture have prompted changes in the marketing and trade models associated with evolving products. To extend the previous comparison, have you ever bought a wireless phone game … and then bought it again when you changed phones? Have you ever purchased software that forced you to uninstall it from one computer before installing it again on another? We don’t get upset when the library demands its book back or the video rental service dings our credit card for a DVD we never returned, because these are transactions whose terms are known to us ahead of time.

How can we then bleat that we’re being exploited or otherwise mistreated when we voluntarily engage in commerce whose licensing and terms of use are explained to us from the outset? This isn’t even a complex software agreement whose user terms specify something insidious we are apt to overlook; it’s an obvious function of the portability and storability of the data – itself an ephemeral medium that can be lost in countless ways. An entire industry has been built on the back of that data’s volatility.

Your property rights begin and end with created value. It is value that makes it possible to engage in trade. It is your effort that causes that value to come into being. Your created value does not constitute a claim over the minds of others, nor does added value invalidate others’ pre-existing ownership. There are many complicated, even gray, areas filling in the gaps between these extremes, but we cannot begin to discuss these until we grasp the basic tenets of free-market exchange. A free society deserves no less.

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