08 November 2006
Siu King Chung
Siu King Chung

In a utopia where resources can be easily transferred and distributed equally, the concept of property does not exist. Unfortunately, we live in a largely capitalist world where the power of the rich is characterised by the notion of "property", and maintained through technology, economics, politics, and education. Once one owns property, one has the right to use it. In this light, property can only be transferred through money. Property has exchange value. The more money one has, the more one can manipulate that property. The resources of this world are controlled by the logic of this order.

A true story: A product designer has quitted his job and started a small business designing premium products and household decorative items. Before long he encounters an established company that shows interest in his ceramic tableware and suggests that the two companies co-operate. The larger company asks for design samples to see if production and marketing is possible. However, the sly larger manufacturer runs a bidding exercise with his designs. Later, the production department of the smaller company finds that its designs have been crudely appropriated and it is unable to win the tender.

The owner of the smaller design firm could be blamed for his lack of experience, or perhaps for his stupidity in not registering his designs. But in the area of intellectual property rights, money talks. If one has capital, then one can register designs. Yet how does one gain capital to register designs prior to success in business? Has one only oneself to blame for lacking capital? And what can the IPR laws do to help?

"Knowledge", as one of man's vital resources, is privatised unknowingly. Knowledge becomes the property of the rich. One must pay for copyrights for the use of supposedly shared knowledge. A second thought: why do we need intellectual property rights at all? Can knowledge be owned? Should we pay for exchanging what we know? But don't we pay to go to school? We pay for books, tutors and even tools to help us gain knowledge. Crucially, how do pricing mechanisms operate in knowledge-based-products? What caused the boom in price of software following the commencement of The Intellectual Property (Misc. Amendments) Ordinance 2000 on 1 April 2001?

A fable: Two animals, with fairness in mind, were engrossed in dividing a sausage between them when a sly fox showed up uninvited to act as a judge. With the consent of the two parties, the fox split the sausage into halves, one piece in each of his paws. The fox then put the two halves of the sausage side by side. Surprisingly, one piece was longer than the other. The fox then suggested that he would bite off a little of the longer portion to make the two halves equal. After he had bitten a piece off the longer portion, the fox put the two halves side by side again. But now the other half was longer! Again the sly fox suggested that he would bite off the now longer portion, and once again the sausages turned out to be of unequal length. As the process continued, the two halves of the sausage got shorter and shorter until finally both pieces ended up in the fox's belly. This story reminds me of the relationship between the sale of computer hardware and software. As a user, my software never fits my hardware and as I chase them (constantly spending money), they are constantly chasing each other.

Money, of course, comes in handy in all situations. Amongst students, it is the wealthy ones who can afford to buy textbooks, extra learning tools and hire private tutors. Perhaps this is the new form of "learning". Less fortunate students may not be able to afford textbooks, let alone software, and will benefit from fewer resources. Is it justifiable to deprive one group of students of their ability to learn on the grounds of copyrighted materials and intellectual property rights? The fact that money goes hand in hand with intellectual rights is obvious. The computer is an expensive learning tool, and parents who can afford to buy this tool can provide better training for their children. Society is thus segregated, and in an era when equal rights are of prime importance, why is privacy - a means to get cheaper use of software - defined as a criminal offence?

On my bookshelf, there is a book with the claim: "No copyright, No rights reserved" (Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle. Rebel Press, Aim Publications, 1987). In another book I find, "No copyright. Any of the texts in this book may be freely reproduced, translated or adapted even without mentioning the source", (Ken Knabb, Nadine Bloch and Joel Cornuault (ed & trs). Situationist International Anthology. Califonlia: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981). In another one, there is no information regarding copyright, yet on the first page there is a quote from Lautreamont: "Plagiarism is necessary - progress implies it" (Iwona Blazwick (ed). An endless adventure an endless passion an endless banquet: A Situationist Scrapbook. London: Verso/ICA, 1989).

These publications are examples where copyright claims do not interfere with their status as carriers of knowledge. If knowledge and the tools for knowledge are used for communications and for improving the life of people, knowledge should be free from economic drives. The so-called knowledge-based economy or protection of intellectual properties may be merely part of the management system of knowledge, and a commercial control over production of knowledge, diffusion of ideas and of profits. As a result, those with power and capital can control the flow of resources (including knowledge, natural resources and man-made resources).

Perhaps we can imagine new types of ownership, such as solar-rights, air-rights, scene-rights, sound-rights or odour-rights. To apply the logic of ownership rights in an era of utilising natural resources, solar and wind energy could be privatised and people would have to pay to enjoy them. One upon a time, natural resources - our innate abilities and knowledge - could be shared. Now they have lost their autonomy. Perhaps in the future designers will be prompted to submit proposals of patent-strategies or concept-products to clients in order to control the flow of resources and the powerscape in the knowledge-based economy.

About the article
Reprinted with permission from XPress. Siu King Chung, Xpress, Alienating Intellectual Property Rights, intellectual property, segregation, copyright.

About the Author
Siu King Chung is an Assistant Professor and the Course Leader of the BA (Hons) Art and Design in Education Programme at the School of Design, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He is an art commentator, an installation artist, and is actively involved in arts policy and art/design curriculum development in Hong Kong.

About Xpress
The Xpress is a design journal published by the Hong Kong Designers Association. The Journal is distributed free to members, design schools, design associations, professional bodies, creative industries, sponsors and overseas design institutions.