Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Intellectual Property: A Scabrous Blight on the Human Spirit

or, The Singularity Happened and We Decided it was Not Profitable.

"I am my thoughts. If they exist in her, Buffy contains everything that is me and she becomes me. I cease to exist. Huh." -Oz, Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Foreword: I know I have already started another post with the above quote, in fact, it is probably my favorite post that I have written, and I link to it later, but the quote is applicable to this post as well. Which is kind of odd, because I didn't expect this post to take the turn it did, but turn it did, and I enjoyed the ride.

Post: Consider philosophy, or math if you must, or even just your favorite human endeavor. The usual way these subjects advance is that someone has a new idea, they explain it to a few people, called their students, and the especially bright ones go forth and leverage their mentor's new idea into an even newer idea. Now imagine what would happen if the mentor said, "student, each time my idea is used, the user must compose me a sonnet," as sonnets are the only form of currency appropriate for philosophers.

Now we do not get the students contribution, as writing their mentor a sonnet each time they use, or explain, or even think about their idea is a serious annoyance. We do not have the Industrial Revolution, because it requires so much calculus that the royalties to Newton, or Leibniz depending on who wins in court, make it prohibitively expensive to experiment with their calculations. Much of our current prosperity is built on the concept that while physical things can be bought and sold in the market, the correct payment for an idea is credit, you give the author a citation and move on.

This seems to have worked quite well when most things were things. Even most ideas were things; while the Mona Lisa may be an image, it is also a painting. Nowadays, however, so many ideas are independent of their things. If I go to the used bookstore and buy a much loved copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, it is both a book and a story. However, if I download a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo to my E-reader, I still have, for the most part, the same E-reader, and now I also have the story.

Since the idea and the thing are no longer so closely tied, we decide that we must control how the idea itself is distributed, rather than just the thing, so that the people controlling the ideas may profit. Now people who use the idea, or share the idea, without rendering unto Caesar are branded thieves and punished; which, when you think about it, is akin to criminalizing reading a story aloud to an audience. While this, undeniably, allows some people to make a lot of money, it seriously limits the usefulness of the idea.

Even if we are permitted exposure to the idea, we are not supposed to take it and make it our own, leveraging it to create our new ideas. This is the problem of fan fiction, of reverse engineering technology, and of covering your favorite song. The cycle of creation, absorption, then further creation has been artificially severed, specializing people into creators and absorbers, or consumers, dramatically restricting the pool from which new ideas are likely to arise.

Some argue that if we did not allow the creators to make vast profits off of their ideas, we would no longer gain the benefit of them having these ideas. Whether or not this premise is economically true, and the creators are actually the ones gaining this vast wealth, it is false from a number of other perspectives. It is historically false, people have been striving to improve the Idea throughout history, regardless of whether they ended up scorned and forced to drink hemlock (Socrates), died penniless (Leonardo Da Vinci), or ended up a royal tutor dying from exposure to early morning cold (Rene Descartes). It is anthropologically false, there are not creators whom the rest of us must entreat to create, or creation itself will cease, for we are all creators. For every Newton whom we might tease out of the woodwork with the crass lure of lucre there is a Leibniz who will create for creations sake, for the Idea. And it is philosophically false, not only are we all capable of creation, we are all compelled to creation. Philosophers have likened creation of things and ideas to our creation of our self, so, without creation, we cannot exist as fully realized people. Thus we write Rowling/Tolkien crossover fiction, we work on accordion covers of Bad Romance, and we write our silly little blog posts.

Furthermore, we do not hoard these ideas, we upload them, we post to them, we link to them, we should them from the metaphorical mountains. Because they are our creations, they are ourselves, and we wish to go out into the world and to change it, and to be loved, but maybe most of all, to be recognized and known. No, closing the floodgates on the Idea and caging it to service commerce does not encourage creation, it cripples it. It cripples us, turning us into into receivers, lacking the confidence to synthesize and rebroadcast and complete the life cycle of the idea.

What is worse, there is no need to close the floodgates. If I have a book, then you take my book, I no longer have the book, although if I have read it I still may have the story. If I have a story on an E-reader, and you take my story and put it on your E-reader, we can both have the story. Yet, because we are developing our information to force it to reflect what we previously have known about economies, we are artificially attempting to shape the idea economy to act as the thing economy does. Penny Arcade commented on the utter ridiculous nature of this artificial scarcity, although the accompanying comic does so rather crudely. As I publish this post, I set it free, and you, and everyone in the world who has access to the Internet, can read it, and have it, and I still also have it, and we may all take it and add to it if we so wish, because the information singularity is here, we just need to wake up, open our eyes, and see it.


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