Is The Bible Relevant To Intellectual Property?

A recent Wall Street Journal article reported how Indian companies breach intellectual-property rights of foreign companies with the tacit consent of the government (“India's Lawless War on Intellectual Property” WSJ, 3/23/14). According to the article,

“New Delhi has in recent years allowed Indian companies to violate international intellectual-property norms by, among other things, producing generic versions of patented pharmaceuticals developed by European companies. This needs to stop: Violating intellectual-property rights might generate some upfront economic rewards for India but it also corrodes the foundations for long-term prosperity….After all, intellectual property is the cornerstone of innovation. It creates incentives essential for productive risk-taking.”

“But India's anti-intellectual property strategy doesn't just hurt its trading partners; it also hurts India. Corrupting these protections stifles domestic innovation. Local entrepreneurs are going to shy away from taking new risks. When an Indian innovator's efforts result in a successful product, the government can just swoop in, steal the idea and deprive him of any profit. Likewise, violating intellectual property scares off foreign investors, who will just relocate their money to legal environments more conducive to returns.”
 

Obviously, most of the world has laws involving intellectual property, and most of the world knows that there’s a “right” way and a “wrong” way for anyone to treat another’s intellectual property.  Thus, it becomes very obvious that the Bible has a lot to say about intellectual property, because it has a lot to say about how to treat another’s property, and how to act toward those in authority in the government of one’s country.  Let’s be sure that we follow those Scriptural mandates, and encourage others to do the same.

First, exactly what is meant by “Intellectual Property”?  The U.S. Supreme Court used that phrase at least as early as 1949, in a tax case, to apparently include patents, copyrights, secret processes and formulas, good will, trademarks, trade brands, and franchises[i]. Later, in 1974, the Court specifically referred to trade secrets as being intellectual property[ii].

History books will tell you that in medieval times, people tended to form “guilds” or associations based on their trades, such as masons, carpenters, carvers, glass workers, etc.  Those trade associations kept their techniques and tools secret, so as to keep their “monopolies”, and thus charge higher prices for their products and services.  Because they had monopolies, the guilds effectively discouraged learning and innovation.

In contrast to such limited access to learning, here’s what one famous scientist had to say in 1675 about innovating:  "If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”  Isaac Newton, Letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1675.

The founders of our country decided that it would be wise to create laws that would motivate people to invent and create.  Thus, in 1787, they wrote in Article I, Section 8, of the United States Constitution:

“The Congress shall have power … to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
 

Our non-Christian, secular government has produced a lot of laws (federal statutes, state statutes, and cases) involving intellectual property. These laws use terms with clear moral overtones. Here are some examples (more cases in endnote[iii]):

Federal statutes and cases:

  • 17 U.S.C. Section 506, the underlying criminal statute, defines the offense of criminal copyright infringement as infringement committed "by the reproduction or distribution, including by electronic means, during any 180-day period, of 1 or more copies or phone records of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $ 1,000."  – United States v. Cassim, 693 F. Supp. 2d 697, 700 (S.D. Tex. 2010).

  • "In an age where the intangible intellectual property value of goods may vastly exceed the intrinsic worth of accompanying tangible goods, application of the letter and intent of the Sentencing Guidelines mandates that courts include intangible value when thefts of tangible objects occur." – United States v. Lyons, 992 F.2d 1029, 1033 (10th Cir. 1993).

  • “Although designing or inventing around patents to make new inventions is encouraged, piracy is not. Thus, where an infringer, instead of inventing around a patent by making a substantial change, merely makes an insubstantial change, essentially misappropriating or even ‘stealing’ the patented invention, infringement may lie under the doctrine of equivalents.” – Wallace London & Clemco Prods. v. Carson Pirie Scott & Co., 946 F.2d 1534, 1538 (Fed. Cir. 1991)

Texas statutes and cases

  • § 31.05 of the Texas Penal Code – Theft of Trade Secret
A person commits an offense if, without the owner's effective consent, he knowingly:

(1) steals a trade secret;

(2) makes a copy of an article representing a trade secret; or
(3) communicates or transmits a trade secret.
(4) An offense under this section is a felony of the third degree.

  • “Appellant, Kent Weightman, was charged with and convicted of nine counts of theft of trade secrets and two counts of commercial bribery. Tex. Penal Code Ann. §§ 31.05 and 32.43(c)(Vernon 1989).” Weightman v. State, 975 S.W.2d 621, 622 (Tex. Crim. App. 1998).

So what does the Bible say about intellectual property? These Scriptural passages are relevant for this subject:

  • Exodus 20:15: "You shall not steal.”
  • Deuteronomy 19:14: "You shall not remove your neighbor's landmark, which the men of old have set, in your inheritance which you will inherit in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.”
  • Deuteronomy 27:17: “Cursed is the one who moves his neighbor's landmark.”
  • Proverbs 23:10-11: “Do not remove the ancient landmark, nor enter the fields of the fatherless; For their Redeemer is mighty; He will plead their cause against you.” 
  • Hosea 5:10: "The princes of Judah are like those who remove a landmark; I will pour out my wrath on them like water.”
  • Romans 13:1-7:
1      Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
2      Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
3      For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.
4      For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.
5      Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake.
6      For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing.
7      Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
 
  • Ephesians 4:28 “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.”

In closing, one particular area of intellectual property law that some Christians tend to violate is copyright law.  I have often heard the following excuse for stealing someone else’s creative work, whether a book, an article, a photograph, or a song:  “I found it on the Internet.”  To such an excuse, I reply, “Does that mean if you see that someone left the car keys in the ignition, it’s okay to steal that car?”

“Let him who stole steal no longer.”

Tim Headley is an attorney who has been helping businesses protect their creative works since 1984, by specializing in "Intellectual Property", specifically patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets  Before that, he taught theology in a Bible School in La Paz, Bolivia, for three years, and then worked as an electrical engineer in Houston for three years.  He can reached at tim@headleyiplaw.com.

[i] See Comm'r v. Wodehouse, 337 U.S. 369, 419 (U.S. 1949)
[ii] Kewanee v. Bicron, 416 U.S. 470, 478, (U.S. 1974).
[iii] Criminal Copyright Infringement  17 U.S.C.A. § 506(a);
The Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (15 U.S.C. 1125(d)), effective November 29,   1999;
Computer Fraud And Abuse Act 18 U.S.C. § 1030;
Economic Espionage Act 18 U.S.C. §§ 1831 & 1832(a)(5) (criminalizes the knowing theft of trade secrets);
Trafficking in Counterfeit Labels 18 U.S.C. § 2318;
Piracy of Copyrighted Works (“No Electronic Theft Act’’) 18 U.S.C. § 2319;
Trafficking In Counterfeit Goods Or Services 18 U.S.C. § 2320(a).