Ramblings & ephemera

Richard Stallman on why “intellectual property” is a misnomer

From Richard Stallman’s “Transcript of Richard Stallman at the 4th international GPLv3 conference; 23rd August 2006” (FSF Europe: 23 August 2006):

Anyway, the term “intellectual property” is a propaganda term which should never be used, because merely using it, no matter what you say about it, presumes it makes sense. It doesn’t really make sense, because it lumps together several different laws that are more different than similar.

For instance, copyright law and patent law have a little bit in common, but all the details are different and their social effects are different. To try to treat them as they were one thing, is already an error.

To even talk about anything that includes copyright and patent law, means you’re already mistaken. That term systematically leads people into mistakes. But, copyright law and patent law are not the only ones it includes. It also includes trademark law, for instance, which has nothing in common with copyright or patent law. So anyone talking about “quote intellectual property unquote”, is always talking about all of those and many others as well and making nonsensical statements.

So, when you say that you especially object to it when it’s used for Free Software, you’re suggesting it might be a little more legitimate when talking about proprietary software. Yes, software can be copyrighted. And yes, in some countries techniques can be patented. And certainly there can be trademark names for programs, which I think is fine. There’s no problem there. But these are three completely different things, and any attempt to mix them up – any practice which encourages people to lump them together is a terribly harmful practice. We have to totally reject the term “quote intellectual property unquote”. I will not let any excuse convince me to accept the meaningfulness of that term.

When people say “well, what would you call it?”, the answer is that I deny there is an “it” there. There are three, and many more, laws there, and I talk about these laws by their names, and I don’t mix them up.

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