Transparency Is Not A Zero-Sum Game... But Neither Is Intellectual Property

from the sharing-ideas dept

Author David Brin, who frequently presents ideas that make me think deeply, even if I don't always end up agreeing with him completely, recently wrote an interesting blog post, discussing transparency, security by obscurity and zero sum games. The starting premise is that too many people assume that everything is a zero sum game -- a point that I've made repeatedly over the years, and am in complete agreement with Brin on that pont. I also agree that not understanding the differences between a zero sum game and a non-zero sum game is a huge part of the problem we often see in policy debates.

Brin, not surprisingly, is arguing that security by obscurity really is not a good idea, and challenging a recent paper that suggests that, when the situation is a zero sum game, then some security by obscurity may very well make sense. He's not challenging the actual details in the paper, but rather the idea that it matters very much, since (he suggests) most situations involving security are not zero sum games. It's a good point, and one worth thinking about.

But there is part of his post that troubles me, in that I find that he seems to then make the identical mistake himself, when it comes to intellectual property. After talking about zero sum games, he throws his weight behind the idea of strong IP laws, as an example of regulations that are designed to spread knowledge, and thus create a non-zero sum outcome. Here's just a snippet, but it goes on for longer, so go read the post linked above:
One of the most ingenious “regulations” — supported by Adam Smith and Ben Franklin etc, — was the notion of intellectual property or IP. Patents and copyrights were never intended to mean “I own that idea!” No, intellectual property was born entirely as a pragmatic tweak, offering creative people a subsidy in order to draw them into openly sharing their discoveries… so that others might use and improve them and we get the virtuous cycle of positive-sum improvements, ever-accelerating knowledge, skill and wealth.

Let there be no mistake. That is one of many ways that regulated competition delivers on the promise of markets and Smithian capitalism vastly and demonstrably far better than anything that ever resembled laissez faire or Randian cannibalism festivals.
He brings this point back up later, in arguing that stronger IP laws make sense because, he argues, without such laws encouraging the publication of ideas, people will keep everything a secret, and that will actually hinder creation and innovation:
But Pavlovic is describing a specialized case. A situation in which things are already decidedly zero sum. In which your company knows that its competitors cheat. They steal IP and our Enlightenment civilization is all too often failing to do anything about it. As America and other western nations are failing miserably to protect western IP… the goose that lays the world’s golden eggs.

Reciprocity has broken down and with IP no longer protected, innovators must fall back on the old ways. Concealment. Trade secrets. Squirreling away your tricks so the other guy won’t get to copy them.

Overall, that is the world we’re heading back toward, for a number of reasons. Because certain countries and companies are rampant intellectual property thieves. Because Western leaders won’t act to stop it. Because some western mystics and idiotic “legal scholars” actually believe that IP is based on principles of palpable ownership, and thus secrecy is somehow equivalent to patent declaration, instead of its diametric opposite!
In other words, he appears to be arguing that we need IP laws, because without it, everyone would keep stuff secret, and that would be bad. But... I'm not sure reality agrees with that sentiment. First of all, it ignores the idea that many (if not most) ideas you simply can't keep secret. It's as if he's relying on the myth that patents really "disclose" new ideas that others had no idea about. That's extraordinarily rare. For many products, if they're in the market, they're no longer secret, whether or not there are any intellectual property laws around them. Second, he seems to ignore the idea that there may be other, non-IP law-based reasons for people to share their ideas/inventions/innovations/creativity. For many people there are tremendous reasons: whether it's to sell a product or (often more importantly) because sharing and opening up one part leads others to make your work more valuable and useful.

In fact, if you look at the research, much of it suggests that in the absence of IP (or, at the very least, with much weaker IP) you actually get a massive positive sum game, because there's much more benefit to sharing ideas, rather than hoarding them and locking them up behind a toll booth. The more widespread sharing of ideas, leads to greater innovation and output, making it very much a positive sum game.

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  1. identicon
    abc gum, 24 Oct 2011 @ 7:55am

    Re:

    Your unsubstantiated conclusions are meaningless, perhaps you could elucidate?

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