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When is Information Free?

In a free society, is publicly available information yours for the taking?

Q: Free access to information is a cornerstone of a free society. You only have to look at the World Wide Web to see evidence of that. What I want to know is, If information is publicly available, am I free to use it or do I have to get permission from someone?

A: If you're referring to information that is protected by patents, trademarks, trade secrets or copyrights, here's something to give consideration to:

In true capitalist fashion, I just can't balance the 'help yourself' attitude, as in "I can take what I want, it's free," with the self-help argument: "You can't take that; I built it, and it's mine." In a free society, I'll take the self-help argument any day!

No person arguing that 'It's free' would allow you to take their new car for your personal use simply because you think you should have access to it. Most would also not move out of their houses to let a homeless person move in and take up permanent residence for free-simply because this great country should provide for a roof over everyone's head.

In the narrow context, one definition of "property" is intellectual property: creations or expressions, inventions, discoveries, writings, photographs, computer code, business methods, and more. In a free society, those who work hard to create property should be permitted the freedom to enjoy it, without the government or anyone else taking it from them.

The cornerstone of our free society is the Constitution, and while the Constitution says nothing about car ownership, it does assure our freedom as a society and guarantees our ability to prosper as individual citizens. This can be seen in Article 1, Section 8:

". 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..."

The granting of a patent to an inventor in return for publicly disclosing the discovery to "promote the progress of science" has served the country well; the United States has become the world's technology leader. Without the economic incentive of protected rights of ownership, most inventors and entrepreneurs would never invest hard-earned dollars in the development of expensive technologies-only to have them ripped off by those looking for the free handout (under the liberal interpretation of "everything should be free in a free society").

So to answer your question, no, you don't have the right to simply use information that has been patented, trademarked or copyrighted or is a company or individual's trade secrets. In the tradition of the principles our country was founded on, you must seek out the person who holds that patent, trademark, copyright or trade secret and get their permission to use the information they worked so hard to create.

Andy Gibbs is president and CEO of PatentCafe.com Inc, a leading intellectual property information and resource Internet portal. He is an inventor with seven issued and pending patents, and an entrepreneur who has started seven companies ranging from product development to low-and high- technology product manufacturing. He speaks to inventors, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists on intellectual property, marketing research, competitive strategy and sales development. Visit http://www.patentcafe.com.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

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