Marten Toonder is one of the most celebrated writers of the Netherlands, and also near-impossible to translate. 2012 is the ‘Toonderyear’, according to his fans. He wrote what one might call ‘fables’, about the characters of Oliver B. Bumble and Tom Puss, the latter being loosely based on Puss In Boots, and the former on the Marquis Of Carabas. Much like proper fables, his stories are often parables of the real world.
In 1959, he wrote the story De Windhandel – literally ‘The Wind Trade’, but since wind in Dutch carries the heavy connotation of being fleeting, more akin to ‘blowing in the wind’, the title ‘The Air Trade’ might describe it better in English. ‘Windhandel’ is a word that has been around for a little longer, used to indicate certain forms of stock trading that were more accurately perceived in the 1600’s, but the expression has fallen out of use since then.
The story, very briefly, is as follows: an oil trader comes to the lands of Lord Oliver because there’s oil there and, after some hassle, they make the bet that whoever raises the most money by the end of the month gets the Lord’s land. Lord Oliver has to become a trader, so he asks Tom Puss what ‘trade’ is. Tom Puss explains: Trade is buying at low prices and selling at a high price.
By chance, Oliver comes across a strange hermit who lives in a cave with hallucinogenic air. The air has the property of bringing the inhaler to the world of his dreams. And the hermit tells Lord Oliver: “the one thing even more profitable than buying low and selling high is taking something free, and selling it” – like the air in the cave which Lord Oliver can sell in balloons. The story continues evolve from that point, and all ends well for Lord Oliver, though not before the oil trade and the air trade collapse. (The air trade collapses, by the way, because when it’s tapped too much, the air turns into oil. A parallel maybe to the selling of dreams.)
Now, the reason why I shared this heavily mutilated synopsis of the story with you is because whenever I hear about ‘intellectual property rights’ and all the trade institutions that sprang up around it, this story invariably pops up in my head. I, for one, find ‘air trade’ a rather apt way of describing the whole undertaking. At some point, we went from the rights that support the economy to the rights that are the economy. Whether we talk about trademarks, copyright or patents, these rights ensure that things that are freely available become quantifiable products that can be sold as individual units. Like balloons of cave air.
Property rights of any sort, being privileges given to someone, are in nature monopolistic. And, as everyone who has ever played ‘Monopoly’ knows, having a monopoly is highly profitable for its owner, and highly unprofitable for everyone else. This is not to say property is theft or anything of the sort, however, the crucial distinction between regular property and intellectual property is that regular property already is a copy. You own a pair of trousers, not all pairs. Intellectual property on the other hand mandates that one owns all copies of an idea, the intellectual concept of something owned as an single item. ‘Trousers’ is a unique word, indicating the concept of all clothing items of the sort. What if someone could lay claim to it and its applications? This is exactly what ‘intellectual property’ does.
Why were these rights created, then? Well, if we for a moment embrace the establishment’s propaganda, it was exactly because they are highly profitable. Thus, any man or woman adding a new invention, piece of art, or similar creations, would, for a time, have this monopoly and get handsomely rewarded for the service rendered to humanity. Rights support the economy, and in turn support mankind.
But then some clever air traders marched in and realised the vast amounts of money to be made from exploiting such a monopoly. So, they pried the rights away from the original rights holders, and started selling them on the market. This holds true whether we talk about labels buying the rights of artists, industries buying patents from universities, or brands putting trademarks on imported goods. Thus, the rights became the ‘goods’ to be sold and bought, rather than a safeguard that the goods based on those rights would benefit those who were responsible for its creation.
As it stood, the original rights holders had little choice but to sell their rights, as they more often than not lacked the infrastructure to turn their rights into goods that they could sell. They could try to eat their intellectual fruits, or sell them for pennies on the dollar. Thus, the rights themselves became the items of trade. But I suppose one could argue they at least had rights to sell. A reputation-based system would allegedly run the intellectual labourers – not their exploiters – out of business.
As irony wills it however, technological progress proceeded at its own steady pace, and not long ago, the internet became universally accessible in developed countries. And now, everyone has the industrial capacity to make a near infinite number of copies of anything that can be digitized, thus lifting such items completely out of the sphere of the economic. There is no market where there is no noticeable scarcity.
And where did this leave our air traders? Well, those invested in ‘pure’ air trade such as copyright are left with a huge pile of now useless economic monopolies. If you ever read a report from the copyright lobby, you’ll note how much money they loose. They calculate: X downloaded copies times Y price makes a gargantuan loss. This being a monopoly, however, their loss is society’s gain. These numbers say nothing more than how much richer everyone has gotten.
To keep on the subject of copyright a little longer, the other good news they’d never tell you is that people don’t spend a penny less on culture as a whole. People simply spend their money on different things. Concerts, merchandise, cinema visits, et cetera. And this leaves our original creators in a somewhat better position, as these things require their actual presence in the case of concerts, while merchandising and cinemas care little for the actual content they sell. Unlike a movie studio, they are at the end of the chain, not the beginning.
Handled well, this situation could ensure that these rights advance to their original goal of supporting people who support mankind. And this is exactly where the air traders have a vested interest to prevent this at all costs. The money circulating in the cultural sector is more or less a given amount, and any advance for either the original artists on one side, or consumers on the other, would decrease their ill-gotten profits.
If we look beyond copyright, why would an African country respect the self-given rights of Western air traders and turn down Chinese products simply because they are dirt cheap imitations? For them, dirt cheap far outweighs the air trader’s ‘rights’. And any innovator in the West is bound hand and feet to the rights of patent holders who overlap his invention, and so, where, in the end, will these innovators settle? I can’t help but marvel how elegantly nature settles this matter. If you want inventions, you have to commission inventors and pay for them, not just pick up their intellectual fruits after they have proven to be successful. And it is in countries where this is practised that innovators will settle.
To return to the introductory story: the cave air has not only turned to oil, in nearly everything that could implicate, it has been lit and is burning down the house around us. And all this is only a precursor to the given that at some point in the not too distant future, the technology will rise to the point that the necessary infrastructure to create goods from ideas will be equally abundant as digitised information is now.
This article is also available in other languages: German.