iPhones and iP

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest


The recent court ruling in the Apple vs. Samsung smartphone case is just one more episode in the controversy surrounding intellectual property (IP for short) and particularly the use of patents.  Patents were originally invented to encourage innovation.  (Hmm…  I wonder if the first patent was for the idea of a patent?)  Nevertheless, some have recently argued that patents do just the opposite, stifling new innovation in a morass of litigation.  Can you actually own property that is intellectual?  Since our society has chosen to grant the right to own property, then if an idea is property, we might, as a society, decide to grant certain rights to the owner of that property.  The violation of those rights would be illegal.  Further, the violation would be unethical or immoral if the law that was transgressed is right and just.  The debate today has largely focused on that last question—whether our current patent legislation is good law.

I think there is some Biblical basis for property rights, especially as they relate to our ability to earn a living.  However, those rights also seem to be limited in a number of ways.  For example, the Jubilee laws required that the purchase price of land be in inverse proportion to the number of years until Jubilee, and the land would then revert back to the original family at Jubilee.  Ultimately, God is the owner and we are merely the steward.  I suspect that Old Testament laws related to property are connected with our ability to work, as an expression of the talents and gifts God has given us and also an expression of our care and responsibility—for our family, for our community, for the Creation.  In the ancient agrarian society, land was the basic resource necessary to enable useful work for most inhabitants (though certainly there were traders, metal fabricators, and other specialists who could earn a living by means that were not so directly tied to land).  In the modern information society, rather than land, our coin of the realm is information, knowledge, and education.  Knowledge now enables useful work for many, if not most inhabitants.  Thus the idea that ideas themselves might be property is not so far-fetched.  Rights do not come without responsibilities:  just as in ancient times, it may be appropriate today to limit those rights and balance them with the needs of the community.  Thus I believe a balanced approach may be wise, granting some rights and protection (through patents and copyrights) for a limited time and in limited scope to enable individuals to work productively and earn a living.  The limits should be sufficient to also enable the good of the community, preventing hoarding of important knowledge or gouging of customers beyond what is reasonable. 

Beyond property rights, I would also like to consider another aspect of rights and justice related to ideas.  Justice can also derive from respect and honoring of the person who developed the idea.  If one marvels at the creativity of an innovative invention, if one appreciates the beauty of a graceful sculpture, if one is mesmerized by the elegance of an evocative symphony, then it is right for us to feel gratitude toward the creator.  Isn’t it enough to appreciate the art itself?  I think not.  I can appreciate and enjoy the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington D.C. because I respect and admire Dr. King’s legacy.  The artwork can instill gratitude to Dr. King.  The artwork can remind me of the importance of King’s work.  However, I simultaneously respect and admire Lei Yixin, the artist who designed the monument.  It is just that we pay respect and express thanks to the artist.  We do the inventor an injustice if we do not acknowledge their hand in the invention.  We do the artist an injustice if we do not credit them as the source of the art.  Respect of the artist may be their right, even if acknowledgement and gratitude do not necessarily take the form of a monetary exchange.

Respect such as this is paid by acknowledging the artist wherever the art is displayed or performed.  When a creative work builds on the work of others, then at the very least, the artist doing the adapting should extend the courtesy to acknowledge her sources.  Even when there is not such a direct link to previous work, inventors and artists with integrity and modesty will credit those individuals who provided them with inspiration and encouragement. 

Engineers often are the unsung inventors and designers behind a product. Perhaps engineers are too shy or modest.  Modesty is not a bad trait—it can help us avoid undue pride.  Even so I wish more companies would follow the example of Adobe.  If you check the “About” dialog for most of their software products, you get a list of all the people that contributed to the product.  It reminds me of the credits at the end of a movie!  I’d like to appreciate the engineers that invented that latest gadget I purchased, the engineers that designed that excellent bridge I just drove across, and the engineers who designed some of the cross-checking logic to ensure the computer flying the plane is ultra reliable.  Whether they got a patent or not, the intellectual rigor and creativity in their designs is worthy of respect and admiration.  If you are one of those countless engineers, technicians, artists, designers, scientists, architects, or inventors, you can pass along that respect by giving glory to God for giving you the talents that enabled that creativity and the resources to carry out your designs.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest