There are cultures around the world where private property is a strange concept. In those cultures, the property belongs to the community in large. Over time, various governments created and enforced the idea of private property because it can be good for all of us. All of us will benefit from people investing in their private property, making it better, and using it in productive ways.
Underlying the idea of private property is the idea that we both cannot have it. This is certainly true for properties that are physical goods, but what about intellectual property? Here are some thoughts.
If everyone in the community comes and tastes our idea, our idea goes up in value, not down. That is because when we share ideas with someone else, we both have it. Our Founding Fathers also foresaw how treating intellectual property should be different than how we treat physical property. The great Ben Franklin said, “That as we enjoy great Advantage from the Inventions of Others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve Others by any Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.”
From the writing in the Constitution, we have always understood that there are stuff and ideas that could be discovered by one but enjoyed by many. There are cultural concepts that only work when they spread and when people share them. But many corporations guard their intellectual properties as if they were physical properties by putting protective enclosures around them and discouraging sharing by many.
How can we strike an equitable balance between two schools of thought? On the one hand, we want to reward authors and inventors by securing limited time for them to harvest their fruit of labor with exclusive rights to their respective writings and discoveries. On the other hand, we also want to promote the progress of science and useful arts, so a great many citizens of society can enjoy the benefits of the writings and discoveries as well. Most would agree that our culture will get better if individuals and organizations get something in return for the hard work of inventing our future. Do we, as citizens of a culture, want to create an environment where someone can come up with something that certainly seems obvious but still able to lock others out of the benefits of implementing the idea?
Furthermore, the Internet is a giant idea-mixing and idea-transformation machine. Our culture is heavily driven by the ideas that we all work with every day, and we have taken for granted that we can take those ideas, merge them with other ideas and make new ideas going forward. This idea of rejiggering and remixing is the heart of what we have built, but some lawyers and corporations want to take it away. These very same organizations that want to engage with our culture and want us to talk about them and trust them, turn around to say do not touch something because we own this piece of intellectual property.
The concept of open source software under the GNU General Public License (GPL) offers an interesting approach. Some people want to make useful tools and remix the useful tools made by other people. Many things that we have used on the Internet to have followed the GPL approach and enabled many other entities to share technology ideas. If enough people contribute to the GPL concept, we can give us a technology toolset for weaving together the culture we want to be part of.
The culture is a magical, fragile thing. It doesn’t want to be at the service of corporations, and it wants corporations to be at the service of it. The idea, that there are life-saving things that could be invented and life-enriching things that can be created, needs to happen to serve all of us. We should also fairly compensate the people who create those productive intellectual properties. But no, the intellectual properties are not theirs alone – they are all of ours. We need to figure out how to have an honest, thoughtful conversation about what is worth turning into the property and what is part of our cultural commitment.