Knowledge Is A Universal Natural Resource -- And Locking It Up Hurts Everyone

from the time-to-face-facts dept

One of the more important points in understanding some of the fights over the ridiculousness of today's copyright and patent laws is to recognize how knowledge (information) is a natural resource. It is the input that makes other great things. Economist Paul Romer's famous research really showed how knowledge and information as a resource is what creates economic growth. Once you recognize that fact, you begin to run into problems when you think about locking up that natural resource. Think of other natural resources. Do we think the world is better off if there's a greater supply of each of those? An abundance? If we have an abundance of wheat, that's a good thing. If we have an abundance of energy, that's a good thing. There may be side effects of such abundances, but the overall abundance is something worth cherishing.

The problem, however, comes when you have a new abundance where once there was scarcity. And that's because anywhere there's a scarcity, someone has built a business model based on that very scarcity. But that is a business model issue. Years ago, most economies rejected the idea of mercantilism, where governments would purposely build up monopolies and artificial scarcities, because of the realization that, in the long run, everyone was better off with a competitive market. The guy who had the sugar monopoly may have hated it -- but everyone else was much, much better off.

And, so, we go back to knowledge and information. Unlike most other resources, knowledge is not just abundant... it is infinite. As Thomas Jefferson once famously wrote:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.
And yet... we still default to thinking that this amazing resource should be locked up. Because it's often easier to see how the guy who owns the sugar monopoly benefits, than to think through the more complicated market in which there are competing sugar providers, each trying to offer a better product, under which consumers benefit at a massive scale, markets grow and opportunity blossoms. It's easier to just focus on the fact that it makes life more difficult for the one monopolist.

And often, it seems that we run into this same issue when it comes to intellectual property law. Brent Ahsley recently wrote an interesting post, in which he talks about how something he created way back in 2002, one of the first DHTML-based embeddable chat windows -- has become a mainstream piece of technology, but one over which Ahsley has no control, nor profits from. But, unlike the typical analysis, Ahsley realizes that the world is much better off this way:
I occasionally find myself talking with someone about facebook chat or google chat and I'll say "I sorta invented that" and point them to my Feb 2002 blog entry where I built and released to the wild what was one of the earliest embeddable DHTML chat windows, using my also free and open what-was-not-yet-called-Ajax library I released in 2000, about 5 years before many people came along and pushed the state of the art much further down the road.

Invariably I am told that I should be rich and that all those sites and people "stole" my ideas. I disagree and say that these were all perfectly obvious inventions to me and all the others who came after me and that it was my duty to the net to feed my work back into it such that folks could stand on my shoulders as I had stood on those of others.

That is how the net works – or at least it used to. It still does in open development circles but the content and patent industries are fighting hard to brainwash everyone that knowledge is inherently owned.
And this, as Ahsley recognizes, is a problem. The world of monopolists is focused on protecting the monopoly. But if Ashley, for example, had patented aspects of his AJAX library, or his embeddable chat, would the world be a better place? It's likely that such chat features would not be as common. It's likely that such chat offerings (which are now everywhere) would not be as powerful or as useful. It's likely that the world would be a worse place. Ahsley, personally, might be a little wealthier -- perhaps someone would pay him to license the functionality, or perhaps he'd successfully sue someone. But the world would be more limited and there would be less to go on.

This, then, is the problem that many of us face in looking at and trying to understand the nature of economics, growth, innovation and progress when looking at the world of monopoly protections. It's easy to see the sugar monopolist, and see how taking down those monopolies might make his job harder (even if it creates a big market with more opportunity to make more money). But to recognize that bigger picture, as Ashley does, is difficult.

Ashley tries to put it all in perspective:
Anything that is knowable is a part of the universe of truth that has no owner and no bounds. The invention or discovery of anything results in the exposure of one or more hitherto undocumented universal truths to the collected human record.

The true and original purpose of copyright and patents is to create a temporary legal fiction which acts in many respects like ownership, conferring upon an individual person rights to control the use and dissemination of morsels of universal truth which they had the luck and/or tenacity to first identify, so they can be recompensed for their contribution to the universe’s growing stockpile of exposed truth for the benefit of all humanity.

The legal expansion to include corporate personhood and subsequent term extensions tending towards permanence of the legal assignment of ownership equivalence amounts to the expropriation and destruction of large parts of humanity’s natural knowledge resources.

It’s not too much different from bulldozing the rainforest.
At some point, it needs to be recognized that the purpose of these laws has been twisted and twisted and twisted to the point that they are broken. They're not acting as a reward for those who discover key elements of knowledge in exchange for sharing them. They've become tolls in and of themselves for the sole purpose of enriching the monopolist. And that takes us right back to mercantilism.

If we were able to reject industrial mercantilism as the wrong economic approach 250 years or so ago, at some point we're going to reach the age where we can reject intellectual mercantilism as well.

Filed Under: copyright, economics, innovation, knowledge, patents, resources

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2012 @ 4:17pm

    NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition !

    Our chief weapon is surprise...surprise and fear...fear and surprise.... Our two weapons are fear and surprise...and ruthless efficiency.... Our *three* weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.... Our *four* *Amongst* our weapons.... Amongst our weaponry...are such elements as fear, surprise.... I'll come in again.

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