The Intellectual Property War

The concept of intellectual property and disputes thereof can be dated back to the 17th century. Mathematicians Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz had one of the first intellectual controversies when they argued over which of them first began working on and thus invented calculus. Today, the issue of intellectual property, especially concerning the intellectual ownership rights to software and other like medium, is one of the most controversial and interesting topics in computer science. Intellectual Property (IP) is protected by laws such as patents, copyrights, and trademarks, “which enable people to earn recognition or financial benefit from what they invent or create” (“What Is Intellectual Property?”). The property in question is not tangible and is essentially an expression of an idea. And the advent and advancement of technology has made the laws regarding IP more ambiguous; legal theorists and computer science experts argue how software should be protected as an intangible intellectual object. Therefore, the issue is the violation of IP such as copying software and denying the owners their legal rights. The scope is global in the sense that countries all over the world have IP laws and provide protection of IP rights. The technical scope of impact is also far reaching because IP is defined as “creations of the mind,” and in theory can be anything from “inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce” (“What Is Intellectual Property?”).

From a professional and legal standpoint, it is clear that the first owner of a copyright, patent, etc. is the author of the creation. But it becomes complicated when it comes to software, “it’s necessary to determine which contributions will be considered “authorship” for the purposes of owning copyright in software” according to a September 2016 article about the Ownership of Copyright in Software (Stobbe). What constitutes ownership of software and what contributions must the ‘author’ make in order to be given the right of the owner? Is it the source code and the algorithm(s) written by programmers or is it the look and feel of the program that gives the creator its ownership? In the instance of this article, which related the case of Andrews v. 1625531 Alberta Ltd. et al, the court decided what actions were not enough to be qualified as the owner or author: “Collecting and inputting data; Problem-solving related to the software functionality; Providing ideas for the integration of reports from one software program with another program.” As for what qualifies ownership, the court determined that “the author of a work entitled to copyright protection is he or she who exercised the skill and judgment which resulted in the expression of the work in material form.” This can still be construed in various ways and is vague and hence disputes over IP rights in the workplace and other professional circles are still common.

There are also ethical concerns when it comes to intellectual property. Making unauthorized copies of a private or copyrighted software program is a form of theft and thus morally wrong. For example, online file sharing services like torrents lead to unauthorized exchange of proprietary content and are a form of IP violations. This affects the music, movie, television, gaming, and other entertainment industries. Living in the modern information age can make one desensitized to this since it is so commonplace. However, not all of the plethora of information available on the Internet can be grouped in the same category. Some information is meant to be shared, for the benefit of the author of the property. But in all cases there is an ethical responsibility to give credit to the author of the software if and when using or casually copying it for your own purpose. On the other hand, there is a movement that believes software ownership should not be allowed at all, all information should be free, and that all programs should be available for copying, studying, and modifying (Bynum). The Free Software Foundation, founded by Richard Stallman- a software freedom activist and programmer, is a “non profit with a worldwide mission to promote user freedom by promoting the development and use of free software and documentation — particularly the GNU operating system — and by campaigning against threats to computer user freedom like Digital Restrictions Management and software patents.” Thus, this particularly speaks to the social issues resulting from IP laws.

The current impact of software privacy is massive; it is costing companies billions of dollars a year. According to Software Piracy Statistics from v.i.labs for the years 2015–16, the commercial value of unlicensed software was $52.2 billion globally (“Software Piracy Statistics.”). Also “globally, 2 in 5 copies of every software product in distribution is unpaid.” Additionally, Google was asked to remove 19 million links per week in 2016 because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, up from 8 million per week in 2015. Furthermore, the analysis showed that unlicensed software is used in “100% of the top 50 engineering schools,” “78% of the top 100 software companies,” 25% of worldwide banking, insurance, and securities industries. Evidently, the current impact is extraordinary in size and has numerous profound ramifications on the global economy and the software world.

Furthermore, in the future, the issue of IP and software misuse is likely to evolve. What is being debated today is whether software is truly patentable. Recently, a “U.S. Court of Appeals judge in a case involving infamous patent troll Intellectual Ventures” ruled that software was not patentable, citing a 2014 Supreme Court ruling known as Alice (Ciccatelli). In the future, “this case could have a significant impact for tech companies and startups if courts continue to take the Alice ruling to mean that software patents are null.” Naturally, the future of the tech industry as a whole and the patent systems will also be affected. According to a patent law expert, there is a difference between software that is clearly patentable and software that is clearly not. “Software that improves the functioning of a computer or a network” is clearly patentable while “software that acts routinely to implement business methods” is clearly not. Therefore, the software patents that fall in between these two extremes will continue to cause IP disputes that need adjudication. Moreover, this will reinforce the need for tech companies to develop even more creative and innovative solutions in order to come up with truly valuable and patentable software.

Lastly, any involvement in the containment or resolution of issues related to IP must realize its importance. IP rights reward creativity and invention of new works that in turn leads to “economic growth, creates new jobs and industries, and enhances the quality and enjoyment of life” (“What Is Intellectual Property?”). But at the same time, efficient legislation must be passed to stop software piracy and protect the rights of the authors and creators of IP. In 2011, the Online Protection and ENforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN Act) was introduced in the US Congress as an alternative bill to the more controversial SOPA and PIPA acts. A White House petition response from leading White House technology officials made explicit that the proposed law’s intent to fight online piracy “must guard against the risk of online censorship…not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses…avoid creating new cybersecurity risks” (Chopra). They assert that the focus should also be on working towards the protection of “global intellectual property rights without jeopardizing the openness of the Internet.” The leadership is therefore about supporting solutions to make the IP system more effective and equitable globally and contributing towards them in meaningful ways.

In conclusion, the issue of intellectual property is an old one and can be traced back a few centuries. Its extensive current impact on the tech world and the world economy as a whole is evident. Its future impact is open to interpretation in that it could go in different ways; to be patentable software must be more innovative and be able to solve problems or improve a task significantly. Finally, efforts to promote and protect the IP system are paramount in order to further the progress of humankind and create a global economy that rewards creators and consumers equally.


Bynum, Terrell, “Computer and Information Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <>.

Chopra, Aneesh, Victoria Espinel, and Howard Schmidt. “Combating Online Piracy While Protecting an Open and Innovative Internet.” The White House. The White House, 14 Jan. 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

Ciccatelli, Amanda. “Is Software Patentable?” Inside Counsel. ALM Media, 14 Oct. 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2016. “Software Piracy Statistics.” V.i.Labs. V.i. Laboratories, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

“OPEN: Online Protection & ENforcement of Digital Trade Act”.

Stobbe, Richard. “Canada: Ownership Of Copyright In Software.” Mondaq. N.p., 23 Sept. 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

“What Is Intellectual Property?” World Intellectual Property Organization. WIPO, Sept. 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

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