Please welcome today’s gust writer, Leah (Jonker) Carpenter. Leah graduated from Calvin in 2014 with a double major in geography and English. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband Rob and just recently retired after working three years as a Geospatial Analyst for both Microsoft and Uber. She recently grew a tiny human, and she’s spending her summer writing and setting up her personal paper business for her handmade pop-up creations.

Sit with this moral dilemma for a minute. Let’s say there’s a company with the ability to clone humans. They require an endless supply of human labor where only one worker is needed for a solid three year duration. Every three years they must replace this person to prevent burn-outs or suicidal thoughts—an end goal is good for every sane mind. For the first three years, they employ one man, clone him, then send him back to his family. With his DNA, which they invested three years of salary into, they duplicate this person endlessly. Every three years, however, they kill the clone and revive a new one.

Regardless of how well these clones are treated, this company owns them. They bought the technology, tinkered with it, and created their own product.

In no way was the original person harmed or affected in this process.

Shouldn’t this company have the right to create something from what they paid for? Shouldn’t they have the right to alter, adapt, or even terminate their product as needed?

Wow. That got dark.

It’s a great thing cloning humans is only science fiction, or we would have a serious moral crisis we would actually need to deal with. First, I can’t claim this storyline (spoiler alert!)—it’s the plot of a somewhat okay yet thought-provoking film by Duncan Jones called Moon; second, I think we actually do have to deal with this dilemma.

On May 30, 2017, the Supreme Court ruled against tightening patent laws that would prevent companies from the tinkering and resale of products. This recent decision prevents monopolies from forming, prices from skyrocketing, and it allows for a healthy competitive and innovative society. [i] When a product is bought, that product is no longer in the ownership of the company but in the hands of the individual consumer as the sole owner—thanks to the ruling, our rights as owners are protected.

This case started after Lexmark wanted to enforce their patent by preventing consumers from refilling their inkjet cartridges with other companies—their major revenue came from the high prices of new cartridges or the slightly cheaper option to refill. Once other companies started refilling and selling their cartridges for a lower price, Lexmark’s profits dropped. They were furious. Their patent clearly stated their products could not be tinkered with or resold, however, according to patent laws, “when a patentee sells one of its products…the patentee can no longer control that item through the patent laws—its patent rights are said to ‘exhaust’.” [ii]

Ya da ya da ya…legality is hard. It’s complicated and messy and while so many companies find loopholes, the Supreme Court officially decided the right of the people as consumers is more valuable than the rights of the sneaky, self-righteous monopolies trying to destroy every competitor.  

All this patent nonsense is easy to grasp when talking about tangible goods, but as we stepped into the murky waters of the digital age, the issue got a lot more complicated. Logically, it makes sense that the same rulings would apply; if we have a digital copy of a file, we own it and have the right to do with it however we like, including loaning it, selling our copy, or even destroying it.

It’s not illegal to let our friends borrow our hard copy of The Martian by Andy Weir. Why not? Crown Publishing and Weir aren’t making profit. But as the owner, it is our personal right to loan out our book.   

In the same way, we can buy a template online for a wrench and print off 500 3D-printed wrenches from our local hackerspace printer. The creator of the wrench template only made profit off one template, but it’s our right as the owner to print an endless supply of wrenches from our template.

But now let’s say we want to watch Jones’ film Moon, but because someone already ruined the entire plot (sorry), we’re not interested in owning it. Good thing there are people out there willing to loan their digital files for free!

Well crap.

This is now considered stealing, because “loaning” actually means the file was cloned and is now forever on our computer, ourself as the owner. Don’t pretend you haven’t downloaded anything illegally. Our generation grew up with the term “torrent” in our vocabulary and basically every millennial knows how to digitally download.

How different is digital ownership from physical ownership, though? Are we not the owner of our purchase, and did the Supreme Court not rule in favor of the owner?

If we buy a hardcopy book we’ve invested our own money into, we as the owner have the right to do anything we want with it; if we buy a Lexmark inkjet cartridge, we have the same owner rights; so, if we buy a digital movie file, don’t we have the right as the owner to do whatever we want with it?

Or if we buy the DNA of a human, don’t we also have the right as the owner to clone…

and kill…

[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/30/business/supreme-court-patent-rights-lexmark.html?_r=0

[ii] https://www.eff.org/files/2017/05/30/supreme_court_opinion_impression_products_v_lexmark.pdf

Leah graduated from Calvin with a double major in geography and English. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband Rob and just recently retired after working three years as a Geospatial Analyst for both Microsoft and Uber. She’s currently growing a tiny human (due in August!) and she’s spending her summer writing and setting up her personal paper business for her handmade pop-up creations.

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