Which Is More Important? Ownership Of Ideas… Or Community, Knowledge & Learning?

from the some-questions dept

My wonderful sister sent over the following quote on plagiarism vs. a community of knowledge and scholarship by famed literary critic F.O. Matthiessen, from his classic book, American Renaissance:

“During the course of this long volume I have undoubtedly plagiarized from many sources–to use the ugly term that did not bother Shakespeare’s age. I doubt whether any criticism or cultural history has ever been written without such plagiary, which inevitably results from assimilating the contributions of your countless fellow-workers, past and present. The true function of scholarship as a society is not to stake out claims on which others must not trespass, but to provide a community of knowledge in which others may share.”
-F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance 1941

Good stuff. Too bad so few still seem to feel the same way.

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Comments on “Which Is More Important? Ownership Of Ideas… Or Community, Knowledge & Learning?”

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AJB says:

nanos gigantum humeris insidentes

“One who develops future intellectual pursuits by understanding the research and works created by notable thinkers of the past”

Goes right to your point… if we had to start from scratch every day, and not learn from others success (or, more importantly, the mistakes of others), we’d still be in caves. It is only through what was passed to us that we have a better tomorrow.

prata (profile) says:

Re: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes

Very true. I am writing fiction in an attempt to create manga with some friends. Although it’s not necessarily community knowledge for the advancement of society, I still know that I’m drawing a lot of my ideas from my personal experiences and the anime and manga that I’ve seen and read in my life.

I’ve learned how to tie up endings and how to create suspense. I’ve learned what some would say is the formula to progressing certain aspects of characters using similar devices from other works of fiction. If authors and publishers lock down those devices/formulas, then I’m sure I’d come up with new ways to accomplish those tasks; however, there would be a lot of failures before hitting on something that was sure to entertain or maybe even make sense.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes

Sometimes physical, human, and mental constraints make it such that there are only a few correct solutions…perhaps only one or none.

In these cases, if the first person to pass that bridge puts a toll on it after passing, the rest of us are forced to either pay, or find inferior routes.

Consider it like bridge-building in the real world. There are natural locations for bridges, typically in narrows between two land masses. Thing Golden Gate, Chesapeake, the Chunnel, etc. What if somebody locked up the “idea” of putting a bridge in these locations?

Saying “Either pay me for my great idea, or just build your bridge somewhere else” severely limits subsequent bridging, either by a tax on the best location, or forcing sub-optimal routings.

What many on the pro-IP side seem to think is that there are unlimited solutions to problems, so if you don’t want to license someones existing work just invent your own. Yet I don’t think this is how the world works. There are not multiple solutions to building a wheel, once the circle is locked up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes

Derek, you cannot copyright or patent an “idea” only the expression of the idea.

Example, a toll bridge. You can get a patent on the payment system (automated systems that catch the coins in mid air, example), and their design, but you cannot patent the idea of a toll.

Same with bridges – you can patent / copyright the specific design of a bridge (and even that is questionable), but you cannot patent the idea of a bridge or the placement of it. You might be able to get a patent on a really nifty neat-ox gizmo that can calculate the exact perfect location for a bridge, but it doesn’t stop someone from doing the same work in a different way.

Mike is pretty agressive here with implying that ideas can and have been patent, which is just not true. If someone comes up with X, you cannot duplicate X, but if you arrive at X using different underlying methods, you are not in violation of their patent. Thus there are 4000+ mouse trap patents, because the simple idea “trap mouse” isn’t patent – just various systems designed to do it.

Thus, all of your examples are sort of meaningless, because you are confusing a general idea with specific designs or systems.

David says:

Re: Re: Re:2 nanos gigantum humeris insidentes

Keep repeating that. It won’t make it any less nonsensical. Copyright gives you power over all expressions of an idea—not just your own expression of an idea within a book, but that idea expressed in any other copy of the book. Copyright has given you power not over any expression, but over the idea itself. What is that idea? The sequence of letters in your book (and any other sequence that only the Supreme Court can decide is similar).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 nanos gigantum humeris insidentes


Idea: Boy wizard goes to a school for wizards, learns to use a wand, and faces a magical foe.

Expression: Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts and faces Voldemort.

The former is an idea that anyone can use. The latter is a specific expression of ideas. The former is not protectable. The latter is.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 nanos gigantum humeris insidentes

Um…metaphor much?

I’m not talking about building bridges nor bridge design at all.

The “narrows” I mention like the Golden Gate are a metaphor for the easiest, most obvious, inevitably discovered best method to cross from A to B. If the first guy to think of building that orange bridge across the span hadn’t though of it, someone else would probably have come up with the same solution later on.

Similar to the fact that there are logical, inevitable discoveries for the best placement of bridges, there are logical, inevitable discoveries for the best solutions to many advances in the tech, music, or design world. This is debatable for sure, but we’ve seen evidence pile up, since so many inventions are pursued in parallel at different times, like the airplane, the steam engine, some naturally pleasing melodies, etc. Of course, first to patent wins in our world.

Perhaps, like bridge locations, there is a natural solution to the problem of “a method for sending email to a wireless device”, “a method to click on a website to purchase a good”, or others. This is what you call the expression of the idea. I argue that locking up an expression may not be a good thing, if that expression were an inevitable solution, and would promptly be discovered by somebody else in the absence of the first inventor. If it’s inevitable, or a natural solution, then we don’t need patents to spur its creation. Free market rewards should be compensation enough.

Anonymous Coward says:

Which is more important? Living in the past or moving into the future?

@AJB: We never start from zero. Even if everything in the universe was patented, copyrighted, and trademarked, we would still have use of the end products, which would spur intelligent people to find new ways to do something (creativity sparked!). Even under the horrible, terrible, massively restrictive rules that are dragging mankind down, we have still made more advanced in the last 40 years than mankind made in the 100 before that, and probably the 1000 before that.

Quite simply, when you look at the evidence,it doesn’t support the concept that productivity or the search for knowledge is limited or hobbled, quite the opposite. 100 years ago, we didn’t have even penicillin, now we are decoding the human genome.

Not bad for a group of people restrained by the overwhelming weight of the shackles of copyright, patent, and trademarks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

100 years ago copyright laws aren’t what they are today, 50 years ago they aren’t what they are today, seemingly every year they try to become more and more restrictive to the point where I couldn’t draw “sonic the hedgehog” with a jet pack legally as a Elementary Student!

If anything you have proven the point of the person you responded to.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Roger that, GP seemed to miss the fact that copyright laws have changed drastically in the last generation or two. Mickey Mouse should be in public domain, but they (Disney) embarked on a massive reform campaign to make it so it wouldn’t be. Bonno (the bastard) helped. Now you can get in legal trouble for converting media you paid for into a different format!

LostSailor (profile) says:

Both, of course.

This is a false dichotomy, especially in terms of copyright. As you’ve correctly pointed out many times here Mike, copyright in no way protects “ownership of ideas,” in only protects the unique and specific expression of ideas. Therefore there can be no plagiarism of ideas: though good scholarship and common courtesy would urge crediting the source of an idea one borrows, it doesn’t require it.

Anonymous Coward says:

“In these cases, if the first person to pass that bridge puts a toll on it after passing, the rest of us are forced to either pay, or find inferior routes.”

You are forgetting “find a superior route”.

“What if somebody locked up the “idea” of putting a bridge in these locations?”

Straw man.

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