Have you heard the twisted adage, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine?” From the time we are little kids our parents and teachers tell us to share. Do not covet what is not yours. Thou shalt not steal. But it is human nature: we want what we want.

Through kindergarten and early stages of grade school all is forgiven. But eventually we are taught to play well in the sandbox with others. The moral of the story: we have to respect each other’s boundaries.

Under intellectual property law, creators are granted certain exclusive rights to a variety of intangible assets, such as music, books and artistic works; discoveries and inventions; words, phrases and designs. This includes trademark, copyrights, patents, etc.

In practical terms, if you made it, you own it. For better or worse, for profit or loss, our labors are ours to control and do with as we see fit.

If you invent a new machine that helps society to improve or makes things easier, we fully expect to buy or sell its benefits. If you concoct a medicine that cures some pestilence, you should receive awards. If you write a novel and it becomes popular, you will make money.  And if you write a hit song, you can become famous. Tradition, courtesy, common sense and laws are all aligned to make sure your efforts are rewarded and to encourage creative people to continue to contribute to human advancement in a fluid way.

However, keeping the rules straight as to who owns what has made lawyers, judges and accountants busy and wealthy for generations. Corporate espionage, plagiarism, bad memory and outright theft have made all this extremely complicated. Copying a term paper at the last minute to get a decent grade, ripping your partner off for a good idea, presenting someone else’s story as yours, are crimes and just plain bad manners.

We have all taped a song off the radio for a mix tape that is played at a public event, xeroxed a chapter of a textbook to pass out in a lecture we are teaching, quoted Shakespeare as our own in speeches or recreated a wonderful photograph we saw in an obscure magazine. HARMLESS? Victimless crimes? But it is a slippery slope.

Ideas should be free. Society cannot progress without the easy flow of information and imagination. A new concept is always built on old ones. Where does the old invention leave off and innovation begin? There is often little consideration about borrowing ideas until someone “borrows” yours.

My brilliant cousin, a computer expert in the early days, used to argue with me that anything on the computer was by necessity free for use by anyone. Until he wrote a complicated piece of software for his employer. He felt he did not get ample compensation or recognition. After experiencing this rip off, he went back to school and became a copyright lawyer.

The digital age has made exchanging music and photographs so simple that there is almost no reflection in downloading a song or picture and using it unattributed or FOR FREE. Our culture will soon solve the problem of how to trace and document all these commercial and personal usages but until then, be careful. The intellectual property you dishonor could be your own.

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Lou Jones is a Boston-based photographer with more than 43 years of professional experience. His award-winning work has been exhibited in museums and collections around the world, and he has published multiple books of and about photography. Read more about Lou Jones here.

Photos and Text by Lou Jones