Intellectual Property Rights: A Changing Field

Intellectual property rights affect everyone – from large commercial enterprises to average citizens. They directly impact the prices that we pay for consumer goods, the availability and variety of said goods, and the ways that we interact with these goods. The essence of intellectual property comes down to the question of how much ownership can be exerted over an original idea and the subsequent product that that idea produces. Meanwhile, the process of governing intellectual property rights primarily consists of attempting to strike a balance between producer and consumer rights. The law strives to protect and incentivize producers, but has to provide some leeway in order to ensure that consumers procure goods through legal means instead of turning to cheaper, less restricting processes.

Intellectual property law uses three primary tools to accomplish this[1]:

Copyrights –Protect artistic or expressive work. They regulate reproduction and distribution of published works.

Patents – Protect inventions or discoveries that are useful and non-obvious. Patents provide the right to control gainful application.

Trademarks –Protect the mark used to identify an object or service.

While these three tools provide many useful services and are responsible for the important service of protecting producer rights, very serious concerns are arising due to technological advances. Today both producers and consumers are guilty of greatly increasing the scope of their interactions with intellectual property rights. Take, for example, the cases of gene patents and piracy.

Monsanto has frequently been in the news lately regarding their use of, and efforts to protect, seeds that they have genetically modified. Farmers often find themselves in expensive court cases attempting to battle the agricultural giant over patent infringement. According to one source, “Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto brought 144 infringement lawsuits and settled another 700 cases without litigation.”[2] One primary difference between patenting a living substance versus any other design is the question that it raises about what happens if the original crop reproduces? Plants, naturally, are apt to do this, which means that the duty now falls on the consumer to prevent purchased seeds from completing future growing cycles and, effectually, creating pirated copies of themselves. Cross-breeding and adapting are also natural traits for plants – if a patented genetic trait happens to be incorporated into a new product, who owns the final product? Should patenting genes even be allowed? These are just some of the questions that are going to have to be addressed more commonly in the coming years as science continues to progress.

Similarly, the internet has made pirating media incredibly fast, easy, and inexpensive. One major dilemma that policy makers face is the consumers’ desire to be able to share media that they’ve purchased. Previously, consumers were limited to physical copies of media, and while they could easily share their copy of, for example, a movie, the scope was limited and only one party could use it at a time. Now, digital copies give sharing almost limitless possibilities, which greatly threatens the original producer. The vast nature of the internet makes effective law enforcement for digital piracy nearly impossible, which means that consumers are largely left to follow their own personal honor codes.

Concerning digital intellectual property rights, there have been some encouraging new developments. The Creative Commons (, for example, is a new way for producers to make their products available and specify beforehand how they can be used, subsequently making products widely available and shareable, yet maintaining key rights that would be lost through piracy. Other shifts, such as the use of ad revenue, in how producers make their content available while still generating a profit show that there are ways to make both consumers and producers happy. Perhaps this is the future of intellectual property rights?

[1] Derrick Cogburn, “Intellectual Property Rights,” Lecture to course SIS-628 Innovation in Information and Communication Technologies at American University, Washington, DC, 4 November 2013.

[2] Joe Mullin, “Organic farmers can’t fight Monsanto patents in court,” ars technical (11 June 2013), accessed 8 November 2013 at

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