What "IP" Really Means: Intellectual Monopoly

Glen Moody has written an article that really resonates with me - it distills the rather bullet-proof arguments put forward by Richard M Stallman, more widely known as RMS - the generous, brilliant, and unflappably principled man who also gave the world the unprecedented (and often underappreciated) gift of the GPL.

The crux of the argument - from my perspective - is this: the term "IP" is (outside of computing circles) used as short hand for "Intellectual Property" which encompasses a number of different legal constructs including copyright, patents, and trademarks. None of those are "property" in the strict sense of the word - they're not tangible things like a house or a car, they're intangible "rights". As such, when referred to as "property", many people make tacit (and incorrect) assumptions about them. These are generally unhelpful.

These areas of legal rights, granted by governments, are effectively a set of government enforced exceptions to a free market. They literally "break" the free market by granting special monopolies to "innovators" (itself a very loaded term). Though they can be traded, bought and sold, I don't believe it's useful to think about these special monopoly rights as "property". A more appropriate and helpful (if somewhat unflattering) term to describe them is what RMS has suggested: "intellectual monopoly". It is a better term - I will adopt it, and offer the suggestion to those who blithely use the term "IP" or "Intellectual Property", because I think it is misleading and promotes a simplistic and non-intuitive understanding of the rights involved. It is also intended to be less unflattering to the business interest who tend to benefit from those rights (and are often embarrassed by the fact that, thought they bought and sold them, they're seldom the actual innovator...).