A Publication of WTVP

One of the greatest challenges to small and large businesses alike is the protection of intellectual property—and the use of materials that belong to other businesses, institutions, and individuals. Knowledge provides some of the greatest business value, which we call “intellectual capital.” But, despite the biblical statement, “Thou shalt not steal,” it happens in international business and personal life more than we want to admit.

A critical ethical issue for businesses and organizations, then, is the protection and use of intellectual property. There always has been a sense of trust and an implicit understanding that what one does with someone else’s time and money is owned by the party that paid for that service. But the electronic channels available through the Internet have blurred whether a digitized work belongs to somebody—or to everybody. For example, people consider that music and graphic art on a Web site belong to everyone—even if, without a doubt, someone created the work.

The question, then, revolves around knowledge and property. Knowledge gives one business or organization an edge over another. After all, to some extent, manufactured products are interchangeable. The design, efficiency of use, method of manufacture, and application are where businesses can distinguish themselves from one another. In knowledge and process, businesses and organizations may have a harder time distinguishing unique approaches—but the original created work has an owner.

If one is an employee, the owner is the employer. If one is contracted for work, the ownership rights need to be spelled out. If one created intellectual property on her or his own time, she or he is the owner. Ethically, the property can’t be used without citation, permission, and, sometimes, payment or licensing.

Employment and contract status may have to be clarified. I wrote an article once about whether a preacher can publish a collection of sermons or educational lessons when working at a local church. Some preachers had it in their heads that even if they were employees of a church or ministry, the sermons belonged to them. God had inspired them with the words. Yet, if the minister is considered an employee of a church, he or she somehow thinks the knowledge or information belonged to them.

The problem isn’t a new one—just more common because of the pervasive presence of the Internet. In Hot Property: The Stealing of Ideas in an Age of Globalization, Pat Choate traces the struggle over—and, often, the theft of—intellectual property. Today, the problems are found in luxury goods design, pharmaceutical imitations, and software pirating. In earlier times in England and the United States, the theft problem revolved around the patenting of the cotton gin, the grain reaper, several projects belonging to Thomas Edison, and the telephone as invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

Ethical problems over the use of property in every age have developed from the dark side of innovation and human nature. There are individuals who want to make money from someone else’s ideas and take a shortcut getting there. While businesses are challenged by the theft from innovation and knowledge, they want to “borrow” from the ideas of others. Choate points out that, in the past decade, American industrial leaders sought to gut the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and remove patent officers from federal employment.

So there’s no question that the lure of lucre can challenge the ethical clarity of intellectual property. When their innovation is stolen or their materials are copied, businesses can suffer economic loss and a challenge to competitive advantage globally. Yet if there’s an advantage to lifting the material of another company, employees and managers often celebrate the craftiness of their adaptations. With the Internet as such a potent presence, there’s that sense that all property is public property, and that imitation is more positive than innovation. The poor ethical approach in such an understanding over the long term can cause loss of genuine creativity.

What approach, then, can we take as individuals, business leaders, and educators to promote the ethical importance of intellectual property? First, we can return to the basic constitutional principle of property. Property can be hard or soft, physical or intellectual, but it still involved creative effort in the work of creation and innovation. We need to do a much better job communicating to our employees, students, and friends that stealing—even if it isn’t of physical property—is wrong. It’s an ethical and practical violation of someone’s integrity and ingenuity.

Finally, the struggle over intellectual property is an excellent opportunity to re-think essential values as people and as citizens. We have a crucial need to communicate this understanding to those who come from other cultures where there may be a differing understanding of intellectual property and its use. We can stress the importance of ethics in the adventure of innovation and intellect—elements of life that lead to excitement and continuous renewal. IBI