I think if you stopped one hundred people on the street and asked them if it’s possible to own an idea 99 of them would say ‘no.’ Maybe 100.
It’s always a red flag to me when people who show no real evidence of thinking deeply about a question are able to answer it in a millisecond.
Suppose you write a book about a boy of mysterious parentage who goes on a long adventure and his name is Harry Potter. The story itself is one big, imaginative idea. Outside of esoteric, communist circles that argue there should be no private property or even money, it is widely recognized that an author can and should own the fruits of her labor and therefore own the idea of the Harry Potter story. But that’s an matter of very specific words on a page. A sort of 100,000-word algorithm that another person could not randomly create on his own. Maybe it’s not really the idea of the Harry Potter story she owns but the specific expression of the idea.
Then there’s an idea like Coca Cola. It’s a sugar drink manufactured a certain way and always sold with a very specific logo so people know they are buying the ideas that make that particular sugar drink possible. That idea is owned by millions of shareholders who jointly own a massive multibillion dollar company. The idea of the chemical formula is a secret apparently worth a lot of money. Is that an example of an idea that is owned?
Although people who read blogs like this often disagree on technicalities and even principles, most can agree that the work and innovation behind what we call copyrights, patents and trademarks rightfully belong to the person who labored to created them (again, pure communists excepted). However, I would be the first to agree that our current State monopoly of IP ‘protection’ is not only needlessly coercive it is also comparatively primitive. Far superior technologies with much greater flexibility and granularity await innovation outside a coercive monopoly.
But how about owning a pure idea? Is that possible?
Suppose I tell you I have an idea that is all my own and I will sell it to you for $10 under these conditions:
- you can use the idea (because using it won’t actually disclose what the idea is)
- you can never tell anybody else the idea
- after I tell you if you don’t immediately agree the idea is unique and worth your $10 I will refund it without question
Then I go on to tell you I have sold this idea thousands of times. In all that time I’ve never had to issue a refund and instead have many glowing testimonials from people who bought the idea from me. I also have a technology to detect whether the idea is non-contractually shared by somebody who agreed to not tell.
If I sell my idea many times to happy customers isn’t that de facto ownership of the idea? I thought of the idea and I make money from selling it. Doesn’t that meet a practical definition of ownership?
So what I’m wondering is whether the ownership of a pure idea is just a technological problem that basically revolves around disclosure issues – my contractual disclosure to you and your agreement of non-disclosure. If we solve that issue, then can we own pure ideas?
I want to be CLEAR – I don’t have the answer to this. I don’t have the technology. On a practical basis maybe it would require the abilities of quantum computing or attaching some algorithm to the transmission of an idea that identified it uniquely forever.
I guess my central point is that definitively stating ‘You can’t own an idea!‘ sounds to my ear like a guy a few centuries ago saying ‘There’s no way to know exactly when a comet will return‘ or ”There is no way to fly above the speed of sound‘ or ‘There is no way to simultaneously calculate one million spreadsheets.’ I don’t think it’s impossible, I think it’s just a technology issue.
But I also think achieving global human Freedom is just a technology issue of protecting every individual’s property. We aren’t Free because the property protection technology to permit Freedom has not yet been created.
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