Intellectual property may seem like an odd topic for wrapping up a discussion of the literary arts, but there’s a sense in which it feeds directly out of the printing press. Copyright is one of the types of intellectual property, and it literally governs the right to make copies of a work; as the rise of digital technology has shown, the easier copies are to make, the more complicated copyright gets.
But let’s back up and look at the whole picture.
(First, though: in these essays I generally try to draw my examples from multiple places around the world, but I’ll say up front here that my knowledge on the subject is pretty much limited to the West. If there are interesting forms of proto-IP elsewhere in history and the world, I’m not familiar with them, and I welcome details in the comments!)
Intellectual property is kind of a weird concept. Physical property is easy to understand; it’s alienable, meaning that it can be transferred to someone else’s ownership, after which you don’t have it anymore. But inalienable things (like love or legal rights) aren’t lost by being shared. Ideas are inalienable . . . and yet we speak of them as if they can be owned and controlled. Which is a huge paradigm shift! How do you “own” something intangible?
The answer is, you invent a legal and social construct. This is generally said to begin with the Statute of Monopolies (for patents) in 1624 and Statue of Anne (for copyright) in 1710, though in looking those up I find there are a few earlier precedents: sixteenth-century Jewish law granting a bit of publisher-based copyright, and even a claim of a sixth-century BCE Sybaritic Greek law granting a one-year patent for “any new refinement in luxury.” But those early forms notwithstanding, the concept of IP is a fairly recent one in our history.
Why come up with such a thing? The rationale underpinning IP types like patent, trademark, and copyright is that by treating ideas as property and protecting someone’s right to that property, you make it easier that person to profit from their intangible labor. When they profit, they’re more able to support themself with that labor, and that means they can spend more time doing it, so that on the whole we wind up with more inventions, more stories, more useful ideas.
Take my own career. I’m a full-time novelist, because copyright means that DAW Books can’t take a look at my success with the Memoirs of Lady Trent and decide to get in on that action by publishing their own edition and keeping all the profits for themselves. I own the copyright to that series and have temporarily licensed the right to reproduce the text to Tor Books; Tor in turn has ensured their own profits by stipulating that the license is exclusive, i.e. I’m not allowed to sign a similar agreement with anyone else until our own agreement lapses. (With exceptions for things like foreign translations, etc. — there’s a reason contracts get complicated.)
In the days before copyright, it wasn’t impossible to make a living from creative work, but it was a good deal more difficult. If you wrote something that took off in popularity, very little other than public shaming prevented someone else from plagiarizing it — and I’ve seen that in action, reading Elizabethan-era literature about criminals and vagabonds, some of which reproduces verbatim text from earlier works in the genre. The same goes for patents on inventions: if you built a better windmill or method of smelting ore, anybody who figured out how it worked could build their own, with no credit or payment to you.
The flip side to this is that IP rights are mostly intended to expire. (There’s a semi-exception for trademarks and service marks: as long as you continue actively using those marks and paying the fees to maintain them, they’re yours. And these also have an older heritage, with the earliest legislation requiring thirteenth-century English bakers to stamp their wares, so you could tell who might be selling adulterated bread.) Most governments that implement intellectual property laws also recognize that in the long run, society benefits from having these ideas leave private ownership and become common property. That’s why we have the public domain: creative works that now belong to us all. The computer mouse was first patented back in the 1960s, but that’s long since expired, which allows for more competition in the marketplace as different manufacturers produce their own versions. The protectionism offered by IP fosters innovation for a while, but eventually you get more innovation by removing that protection and letting everybody play with the idea.
Intellectual property is a worldbuilding issue not only because it affects how characters who engage in creative work can support themselves, but because it changes how people think about ideas. Here in the SF/F world we’re all familiar with the phenomenon of “Tolkien clones”: the slew of epic fantasy novels with a motley crew of heroes led by a wise old magic-user, questing to find and/or destroy a magical macguffin. When one of those crops up nowadays, there’s a general reaction of, “ugh, another one — don’t you have any new ideas?”
But novelty is a very specific value, and one that wasn’t always so important. In the study of folklore, no ethnographer says, “ugh, another version of the Sleeping Beauty tale type — don’t you have any new ideas?” It’s natural for story types to spread, morphing as they go, but remaining ultimately identifiable as being a variant on a known trope. Shakespeare didn’t invent his plays out of brand-new cloth; he borrowed heavily from the history and fiction of his day, and yet we still hail him as a genius. The value of his work is in the execution and the smaller alterations from the source, rather than the fundamental freshness of concept.
I firmly believe this is because of IP. When ideas become property, then they can be stolen, and Robin Hood notwithstanding, thieves aren’t generally admired. We still have some room for imitation, of course; we call it “inspiration” or “homage” or “borrowing” (there’s the language of property again). But novelty becomes much more valuable in an environment like ours, because then the idea is really yours, instead of someone else’s. And that’s also a function of the marketplace: as copyright supports the florescence of ideas, sometimes it’s easier to make your living by finding a new corner in which to set up your booth, rather than competing directly against all the other people selling the same type of idea.
And when we’re speaking of copyright particularly, this has a lot to do with copying technology. Nowadays the subject has become fraught not only because it’s easy to pirate digital books, music, movies, and more, but because the nature of digital media makes it so that even reading a book, listening to music, or watching a movie creates a copy — in your device’s memory. Copyright was never meant to govern the consumption of media, but now consumption technically entails copying, blurring that line. Or what about making backups of your library? Or consuming media on different devices that all belong to you? Digital rights management (DRM) is one attempt to deal with situations the original concept of copyright never envisioned, and we’re still scrambling to find good solutions — legal or social — to the complications that have resulted.