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The Curious History of Komongistan (Busting the term “intellectual property”)

by Richard M. Stallman

The purpose of this parable is to illustrate just how misguided the term “intellectual property” is. When I say that the term “intellectual property” is an incoherent overgeneralization, that it lumps together laws that have very little in common, and that its use is an obstacle to clear thinking about any of those laws, many can't believe I really mean what I say. So sure are they that these laws are related and similar, species of the same genus as it were, that they suppose I am making a big fuss about small differences. Here I aim to show how fundamental the differences are.

Fifty years ago everyone used to recognize the nations of Korea, Mongolia and Pakistan as separate and distinct. In truth, they have no more in common than any three randomly chosen parts of the world, since they have different geographies, different cultures, different languages, different religions, and separate histories. Today, however, their differentness is mostly buried under their joint label of “Komongistan”.

Few today recall the marketing campaign that coined that name: companies trading with South Korea, Mongolia and Pakistan called those three countries “Komongistan” as a simple-sounding description of their “field” of activity. (They didn't trouble themselves about the division of Korea or whether “Pakistan” should include what is now Bangladesh.) This label gave potential investors the feeling that they had a clearer picture of what these companies did, as well as tending to stick in their minds. When the public saw the ads, they took for granted that these countries formed a natural unit, that they had something important in common. First scholarly works, then popular literature, began to talk about Komongistan.

The majority of papers in prestigious journals of Komongistan Studies actually treat some aspect of one of the three “regions of Komongistan”, using “Komongistan” only as a label. These papers are no less useful than they would be without that label, for readers that are careful to connect the paper only with the “region” it describes.

However, scholars yearn to generalize, so they often write so as to extend their conclusions to “more” of Komongistan, which introduces error. Other papers compare two of the “regions of Komongistan”. These papers can be valid too if understood as comparisons of unrelated countries. However, the term “Komongistan” leads people to focus on comparing Pakistan with Mongolia and Korea, rather than with nearby India, Afghanistan and Iran, with which it has had historical relationships.

By contrast, popular writing about Komongistan presents a unified picture of its history and culture. This bogus picture encourages readers to equate each of the three “regions” with the whole of “Komongistan”. They are fascinated by Jenghiz Khan, the great Komongistani (actually Mongol) conqueror. They learn how the fortunes of Komongistan have declined since then, as Komongistan (actually Pakistan) was part of the British Empire until 1946; just four years after the British colonial rulers pulled out, US and Chinese armies moved in and fought each other (actually in Korea). Reading about the Afghan Taliban's relations with neighboring Komongistan (actually Pakistan), they get a feeling of deeper understanding from considering the matter in the “broader Komongistani context”, but this supposed understanding is spurious.

Some beginner-level Korean language classes have begun writing Korean in a variant of the Arabic script, under the guidance of educators who feel it is only proper to employ the script used by the majority of Komongistanis (in fact, Pakistanis), even though Korean has never been written that way.

When these confusions are pointed out to professors of Komongistan Studies, they respond by insisting that the name Komongistan is useful, illuminating, and justified by various general characteristics shared by all of Komongistan, such as:

The professors are aware of the facts which make some of those generalizations untrue, but in their yearning to justify the term, they overlook what they know. When reminded of these facts, they call them minor exceptions.

They also cite the widespread social adoption of the name Komongistan—the university Departments of Komongistan Studies, the shelves labeled Komongistan in bookstores and libraries, the erudite journals such as Komongistan Review, the State Department's Undersecretary for Komongistan Affairs, the travel advisories for visitors to Komongistan, and many more—as proof that the name Komongistan is so embedded in society that we could not imagine doing without it. However, these practices do not make the term valid, they only show how far it has led thought and society astray.

At the end of the discussion they decide to keep the confusing name, but pledge to do more to teach students to note the differences between the three “regions” of Komongistan. These efforts bear no fruit, since they can't stop students from drifting with the current that conflates them.

In 1995, under pressure from the US and other states that wanted to have just one embassy for all of Komongistan, the governments of North and South Korea, Mongolia, and Pakistan began negotiating the union of their countries. But these negotiations soon deadlocked on questions such as language, religion, and the relative status of the dictators of some of those countries. There is little chance that reality will soon change to resemble the fiction of Komongistan.

The parable of Komongistan understates the stretch of the term “intellectual property”, which is used to refer to a lot more laws than the three that people mostly think of. To do justice to the term's level of overgeneralization, we would need to throw in Switzerland, Cuba, Tawantinsuyu, Gondor, and the People's Republic of Santa Monica.

A parable such as this one can suggest a conclusion but does not constitute proof. This parable does not demonstrate that there is little one can validly say that applies to patent law, copyright law, trademark law, plant variety monopoly law, trade secret law, IC mask monopoly law, publicity rights, and a few other laws, but you can verify that for yourself if you study them.

However, simply entertaining the possibility that these laws may be as different as this parable suggests is enough to show that the term “intellectual property” should be rejected, so that people can learn about and judge each of these laws without the assumption they are similar. See Did You Say “Intellectual Property”? It's a Seductive Mirage, for more explanation.

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