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Making sense of the tech divide over IP

CompTIA's Mike Wendy says it's time for a better balance between the exclusive rights of private-property holders and those using their creations.

Steve Ballmer's pronouncement this month that Linux incorporates Microsoft's property and innovation angered many in the Free and Open-Source Software community. Feedback posted online didn't express a lot of love for his statements. But for those who herald the rights of creators, the remarks sounded like "home." Finally, a central issue to the intellectual-property culture war made some headlines: Content creators/property owners have a pretty big say in how their IP gets exploited by others; their rights need some long-overdue respect.

I hope Ballmer's remarks refocus the debate and allow the technology community to better approach the balance between the exclusive rights of private property holders and those using their creations. This balance is clearly out of whack, fostered by au courant reportage and blogging that dissuades many in the IT industry from public admission that they own valuable property, and that they have a right to be compensated for its use.

Why should IP be treated any less stringently than tangible property? The answer is it shouldn't.

IP, i.e. ideas that can affect physical processes, is property, which can be privately held. We should embrace that supposition, but it has divided our industry. Yet the legal obligations attached to private property confound some who see them as an inconvenient obstacle to the sale of their digital offerings. And they have gone about doing everything they can to radicalize the notion that IP sits on equal footing with other forms of property.

Some of these parties say IP doesn't exist at all, that it's a figment created by corporations to rule the world. Others insist that the interests of society outweigh the interests of creators. Still others want to pass public laws outlawing private ownership of certain IP because unfettered access to that property is, in their view, a natural right.

This chorus call is highly troubling. Protecting private property?-the default in most civilized societies?-remains an important public policy objective. It's built on millennia of acquired knowledge which, in the aggregate, says that private property protections wrest the most out of limited resources. And this in turn benefits society.

Intellectual property forms the basis of our industry's offerings. It can be traded, sold, contracted out, broken up bit by bit, sublet. Consequently, IP can be protected like tangible property, too. These protections--like copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets and patents-?outline the rules of engagement for end users. They bluntly say that "the creator allows you to use his/her property in such-and-such a way, only."

Why should IP be treated any less stringently than tangible property? The answer is: it shouldn't.

Which brings me back to Ballmer's statement. Sadly, his bedrock precept received little overt support in the press and on blogs. That bodes poorly for our industry and for countries with advanced IT sectors.

Since we produce fewer tangible goods, more and more of our wealth depends on IP that can be protected. Undermining private-property rights interferes with growth, not just for U.S. companies, but a significant majority of global companies--in developed and, importantly, developing nations--that look to emulate American IP/IT industry success.

To be sure, property law evolves. Free/communal IP no doubt plays a growing and integral role in the creation of goods and services that the world desires. Still, a better balance needs to be struck.

All forms of IP ownership can--and should--exist together to everyone's benefit. That's why the debilitating trend to belittle private IP serves no legitimate end. Left unchecked, it will destroy the underpinnings of our industry.