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TradingInGhosts

What a strange economy! Our lives are dominated by the buying and and selling of information. We purchase patterns of bits --- software, music, TV shows --- in exchange for other patterns of bits --- credit card numbers, bank balances, ledger entries in a database. Things which seem to be solid material objects, such as books and computer chips, are merely convenient vehicles for data. Bound volumes of ink and paper are carriers of words; silicon and aluminum of microprocessors serve only to incarnate mathematical circuit designs. Even the most mundane physical entities --- food and clothing, shelter and transportation --- are dominated in cost not by their raw materials but by the preparation and arrangement of their components.

We trade in ghosts. We pay not for things, but for ideas.

Yet unlike physical goods and services, information isn't exclusionary: when one person buys data, the seller doesn't lose it; both parties still have it, all of it. After you teach me something, we both know it. The original creation of a data structure may be vastly expensive --- billions of dollars for a new high-performance semiconductor device or a next-generation operating system --- but once one exists, subsequent copies can be made for next to nothing.

So for information, many of the axioms of scarcity-based social systems become irrelevant. If you take my cow, I am poorer; I have one fewer cow. If I've written an essay (say this one!) and you read it, I still have the essay; I am no worse off. In fact, if you take my ideas and build upon them, improving and extending them, we are both far better off. Our sharing of knowledge has created wealth that neither of us could have produced alone.

"But wait!" the publishers of information interrupt, "how will we encourage the development of knowledge without intellectual property rights?" --- by which they mean, upon closer examination, special rules to maintain high prices for the old data they are now selling. Note that authors and artists rarely press for special rules; they're too busy working on something new. Lobbying for privilege comes from the traditional purveyors of existing ideas: agents, organizers, producers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, and managers of the marketing process. The voices of knowledge creators are rarely heard, though often their heirs are vocal enough in asking for extended periods to profit from their "property".

Human society has, over the centuries, experimented with several alternatives to encourage creativity while also promoting the sharing and reuse of discoveries:

These each worked, more or less, in their varous domains.

But with the shift to information-dominated economic activity, perhaps it is appropriate to think about new mutually-defined systems to balance individual and societal interests. Look, for example, at the past several centuries of science. Since the time of Newton, a cultural tradition of radical sharing has arisen. Honor and glory go to the first who publishes a discovery --- but not to the person who finds something out and keeps it hidden, or who only shows tantalizing fragments. Once a discovery is made, other scholars are free to build upon it without cost or criticism as long as they acknowledge the original publication (e.g., via footnotes in their writings). Scorn goes to those who cheat --- who fake results, who steal other people's ideas without credit, or who attempt to profit by taking shared information, adding a tiny increment, and putting a mercenary shell around the results. That sort of behavior is viewed as low, dishonorable, and unworthy of a scholar.

Could we consider a similar radical shift in our shared social models for rewarding information creation? Do discoverers have to restrict use of new ideas in order to maximize profitability? Have the traditional concepts of "public domain" and "fair use" been squeezed beyond recognition by short-term selfishness on the part of publishers? Are lawmakers being unduly influenced by contributions flowing from artificial monopoly profits? How much has the overall progress of humanity --- total good for society --- been hamstrung by unbalanced rules for "intellectual property"?

In other words, have we foolishly caged the ghosts of our ideas, and so imprisoned our own creative spirits?

Friday, October 01, 1999 at 20:31:15 (EDT) = Datetag19991001

TopicSociety - TopicEconomics

(See also MacaulayOnCopyright)


Apropos patent, for example, the limited-time "exclusivity" was granted only in exchange for openly publishing all the details of the technology. The idea was to promote a broad licensing to other manufacturers for the duration of the patent, rather than simply protecting the sole rights of the inventor. Thereafter, anybody could freely use the technology.

However, it came to pass that many patents were taken or bought out simply to exclude competitors, without any serious thought of actually developing the technologies described. See for example all the many interlinked patents held by the oil compnaies for alternative fuel technologies.

Needless to say, the original intent of copyright has also been grossly subverted by the distribution industry. -- Bo Leuf


(correlates: FreeTrope, ThingsPeopleAndIdeas, RuddyGore, ...)