SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 26 SEPTEMBER 2004
The first time I came across the term 'intellectual property' I was sitting in a coffee shop earwigging on a conversation at the next table.
The words seemed to freeze my nervous system and I found myself staring blankly into the distance, butter dripping from the toast and down the sleeve of my shirt.
The previous time I came across two words which had been married - shotgun-style - was 'fresh frozen' and 'intellectual property' makes about as much sense.
The phrase is a dotcom offspring for sure, coming to prominence in a period when the internet was going to usher in the knowledge economy. It is one of the few terms which survived the Darwinian cull and it is thriving.
I just don't get it. Is there, for instance, an Intellectual Lost Property Office somewhere I don't know about? Can I talk to an estate agent about it? Do I need planning permission for an extension? And could it be that important when there are no Intellectual Property supplements?
Whoever dreamed it up - and someone must have - put the word property in there for a very specific purpose, intended to show that ideas were the same as bricks and mortar and could be owned, rented or sold.
Easily said and eagerly promoted, the concept of 'intellectual property' is nothing more than a way of grafting previous business models onto new and potential possibilities opened up by the spread of the internet and software.
Software is a relatively new industry, still finding its feet and uncertain of its exact future. Over the next 10 years what happens in software development will have far-reaching consequences for most economies, but particularly countries which already have a foot in the door like Ireland.
The powers-that-be have said time and again that this country aspires to move up the ladder from packaging and distributing someone else's software to building and developing its own software industry and there are very few reasons why that can't or shouldn't come to pass.
But while we've excelled at bringing computer corporations (and some big dotcoms) into Ireland, that expertise will have a more limited use when it comes to putting Ireland on the global software map.
Such is the state of flux which software development now finds itself in, those economies which will do well are those which are flexible enough to adapt quickly to changing circumstances.
The trouble with 'intellectual property' is that the concept is very rigid and inflexible when it's applied to software development. The phrase is really a badly-obfuscated substitution for proprietary.
Jettisoning the emperor's clothes donned during the dotcom era, 'intellectual property' means the same centuries-old business-as-usual. What is new is the attempt to carve out an economic high ground when it comes to software development. And this is where the waters get murky.
There are other methods and models of software development but open source or free software have not been made welcome in the house of intellectual property. Those who write or support these two other development models been branded, amongst other things, as communists. The Cold War rhetoric is not misplaced either, as propaganda is a valuable tool in the proprietary arsenal.
There is a growing stand-off between proprietary and open source software, particularly in the computer desktop trenches. But in general, it's a false battle in the sense that one side or the other will emerge victorious. In all likelihood the three software models will find a way of co-existing and even complement each other.
I wonder whether we've been down this road before. Were co-operative endeavours such as the credit union movement treated with the same disdain by banks when first mooted? Or was the Meitheal - farmers helping each other at harvest time - damaging to Ireland's agricultural economy?
The danger with going exclusively down the 'intellectual property' route is that the Irish industry could find itself locked into a narrow and inflexible way of producing software. By not encouraging other development models, there may come a point where it's too late to move the eggs to other baskets.
But the signs, so far, are not good. The government never talks about other software models and of late has been a prime mover in Europe on 'intellectual property'.
There appear to be fears that encouraging open source software development in Ireland would send the wrong signals and offend the 'intellectual property' landlords. The huge savings the government could make using open source software is seldom mentioned for the same reason. When it comes to open source, the attitude is 'don't go there'.
Which is a shame, because there is great potential in this country for writing good software. If you have come across an email filter called SpamAssassin, you have used open source software with Irish roots.
So have millions around the world. The Internet Engineering Task Force , the key standards body, has adopted SpamAssassin for its mailing lists. So too has the Apache Software Foundation (ASF), which recently gave SpamAssassin top-level status. The ASF's open source software dominates the world's web servers.
This achievement by author Justin Mason is only the tip of the iceberg if the government and industry actively encouraged and promoted other software development models besides 'intellectual property'.
Two words which should never have been married in the first place.