owning knowledge

The fundamental problem is that no one can own an idea piece of information. You either keep it to yourself, or you share it. You can’t distribute an idea and keep it to yourself. That is non-sensical. Knowledge as property is just as non-sensical. Property rights are about restricting access. Knowledge is about expanding understanding. The two are directly in conflict.

Physical property laws have been around for centuries and on the whole work pretty well. The concept of an idea as being valuable is comparatively new. Lots of people have made lots of money by using physical property laws to their advantage. It’s not really surprising that they would try to apply those laws to a potentially lucrative new area. But the economic models are entirely different. Physical property laws came into being to manage scarcity, rival goods in the parlance. The issue being that I can have a piece of land or you can, we can’t both at the same time (partnerships excepted of course). In order for you to have the land, it must be taken from me, and then I don’t have it. Ideas are non-rival goods. I can have an idea, and tell it to you, and I haven’t lost the idea. I still have it intact. What I lost is the exclusive knowing of the idea. The reason this matters is ownership confers privileges–who may traverse your land for instance. In general the owner of a thing gets to decide the terms under which others may use the thing. That use might have a price tag associated with it.

In business knowing something before someone else does can be a big competitive advantage. However, that kind of knowledge comes with a short window of opportunity to use it. Knowledge that can be packaged up is of a different kind. It has a longer shelf-life, so to speak. So here’s the paradox: the fewer people who know something the more money potentially can be made from it, but the less useful it is. The more people who know something the less money can be made from it it, but the more useful it is. Physical property law applied to knowledge is an attempt to solve this dilemma by forcing knowledge into the physical property box where we have established norms for dealing with it. But as I’ve shown, it doesn’t fit. We need new laws to cover the realm of non-rival goods with zero-marginal cost of replication. So far, intellectual property laws, aren’t making it.

We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own.
— Ben Sweetland

This entry was posted on Monday, November 30th, 2009 at 11:46 pm and is filed under Uncategorized . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There is 2 comments to this post.
  1. monika hardy Says:

    i love this post. hope you don’t mind if i share it…

  2. cforde Says:

    Monika, it’s here to be shared…

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