Keynote: Ethics of Intellectual Monopolies

Date and Time: 
7 November, 2010 - 13:15 - 14:00

In the past, there have been two main classes of things we can share:
physical objects and abstract ideas. Generally, people have regarded
ideas as non-rivalrous, and so something that can and should be shared
quite naturally (although many institutions have tried to put a brake
on that for various reasons), whereas *not* sharing physical things is
generally the rule because of the rivalrous nature of physical objects
that have become property (the commons is obviously an important class
of things that can and are shared).

But today, we have a third class of objects: digital artefacts like
text, music, image and video files. These are not physical - although
they have to be stored in some physical way - and they are not purely
abstract like ideas: we can copy them and hand them around in various
formats. So we need to think about what kind of sharing is
appropriate for them.

The music and film industries are currently engaged in a war against
the idea that these digital artefacts can be freely shared: the
Digital Economy Act in the UK, HADOPI in France, ACTA globally. But
these are artefacts with zero marginal cost; once the file is created,
it can be passed on to every human being on this planet with the means
to use that file, for effectively zero cost. This gives everyone with
a computer/connection access to *all* human knowledge and creativity
once it is digitised - an unprecedented situation.

I would argue the power of doing that - and the moral rightness of
giving everyone in the world equal access to all knowledge and
creativity - is now so great, that existing legal systems that try to
apply intellectual monopolies like copyright and patents to stop it
are not just unworkable (as we see) but ethically wrong. I believe
that the arrival of this new class of digital artefacts with zero
marginal cost brings with them a new imperative to share - and also
means we will need new business models to sustain them.

Room 1