Friday, February 19, 2010

Intellectual Property

How can you own an idea?

I know, that's a prompt for a middle school discussion of copyright, but that doesn't mean it's not an important question. Indeed, we have a whole cultural and legal mechanism that allows us to "own" ideas, but the very concept of intellectual property has a far from clear history. Even today, there is a large ideological rift between open intellectual and artistic resources on the one hand and proprietary resources on the other (and, as is common in such debates, the more "practical" side of the argument has co-opted the language of the more idealistic, so that things like Facebook, Twitter, and Google get called "open" when they decidedly are not).

Long before any modern debate, however, Plato confronted the very issue, matter-of-factly stating that, when it comes down to it, owning an idea is essentially impossible. As soon as you hear someone else's idea, understand it, and express it to yourself, it becomes yours. And thank goodness, because the number of original ideas floating around is very small (and those few truly original ideas that do exist are likely insane). There's a particular myopia in believing that any of our ideas have never been thought of before or elsewhere, or even that seemingly new ideas don't come from a huge, continuous background set of repeated ideas. The world is, after all, very old, and people have been on it - and have spoken and written - for a great many generations. There are, at present, well over 6 billion people on the Earth. So show me a completely original idea. And, what's more, show me an idea that is owned.

Of course, we have a cultural and economic model - as I mentioned - for "owning" ideas, but it has nothing to do with where ideas come from. Intellectual property, like the first forays into physical property, is the domain of the socially and culturally adept. Indeed, one might look at the University (or the Record Label, for that matter) not as a way of generating new thoughts, but as a way of ensuring that you publish your thoughts, protecting your intellectual property. It doesn't matter that most researchers in every field are heavily dependent upon each other and upon the mass of research and theory that predates them, because they have a system of intellectual property built around them to keep all but the most determined students out. Participating in the free flow of ideas in academia, in other words, comes at great cost (all of the journals and reviews and books that academics are forced to produce so that, ironically, their employers can afford to pay for all of the journals and reviews and books they need to provide their faculty). Some academics fight this commercialized view of ideas, but it's a tough fight. After all, their own survival depends, to large degree, on their intellectual property.

Owning ideas, however, contributes to social injustice. When access to the best and brightest is limited to the most able to pay, it's no wonder that rich begets rich and poor begets poor. Meritocracy is maintained, perhaps, in the sense that it is much easier to become a meritorious leader when starting off able to afford and willing to pursue an education. The "American Dream" notwithstanding, there is a strong sense of caste in the United States that rests, in most part, upon our inability to provide free access to the one resource most at the heart of learning: ideas (we might also say wisdom, but that's a more complicated word).

From an individualistic perspective, there seems little point in coming up with ideas if other people have already had them (unless, of course, other people didn't publish them), but that seems to me a mistake. A society with open access to ideas will perhaps produce more redundancy, but will also therefore produce a citizenry ready and able to adapt their thinking to particular situations. New ideas may be few, but the peculiarities of any one problem may require a precise combination of ideas (and skills) heretofore untried. At the very least, the processes (and there are many) of problem solving are ideas that no one should "own," and yet problem solving is so rarely taught.

Ultimately, we are all constrained by the culture of intellectual property, but I believe it is worth it to ask questions of the system sometimes. Indeed, if there was more critical reflection going around, we might find that much of what we do "because we have to," we don't actually have to do.

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