Who Owns Ideas?

Tuesday, December 21, 2004
First Aired: 
Tuesday, July 20, 2004

What Is It

You can own a car or a bicycle. But what about an idea? If you invent a program it seems like you should have some say about its use. But can you really own the idea itself?  Listen in and steal an idea or two from Larry Lessig, author of The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World.

Listening Notes

Who owns ideas? Why not, as Ken suggests, whoever creates them? What would be wrong with holding ideas in common as we do with language and argue that ideas are nonphysical entities and cannot be owned by anyone? As John expresses it, when I own something I have the right to use it, and often when I am using it, no one else can. Ideas, on the other hand, can't be tangibly grasped in the same way that physical property can. Consequently, several people can use an idea at the same time without making it difficult for the creator of the idea to use it as well. Ideas are to be shared. Credit is one thing and should be given to the author of an idea, but not ownership.

Ken objects to John's claims by offering a reconstruction of Locke's argument on property. In the beginning, people hold everything in common and there is no concept of property. From here, however, the idea of property quickly arises. Why? Say I cut down a tree and use the wood to build a house. Locke would say that I've put my labor into the wood to create something. A person owns herself, but the physical objects she works with belong to all. A thing becomes mine when I—a person—do work on the object in question. My labor makes the object mine because my labor is mine. Locke's theory works well for ideas. I create a thought in my head that required a great deal of labor to form. The idea doesn't belong to anyone else—no one else thought it up—so I should have ownership of it.

But Locke's theory, as John points out, has significant problems. Here are some examples. Is an apple mine because I pick it off a tree? Is Lake Erie mine because I pour a glass of orange juice into it, adding my labor? Is the atmosphere mine because I contribute to it by breathing? It is easy to see that, for most physical things, Locke provides an inadequate account of why things should be ownable. The fact that the theory holds for ideas, then, doesn't do much to vindicate it.

So, is there a better theory?  Guest Larry Lessig joins the conversation to help John and Ken sort things out.  Lessig points out that for the founding fathers of our country, it was clear that an idea could not be owned. In particular, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a famous passage that, once articulated, ideas inscribe themselves into the thoughts of others. No one can rid themselves of an idea once they have it, and everyone can access the idea once it comes into existence. When Jefferson and others put clauses about copyright into the Constitution (Article 1), they had the protection of authors' expressions of ideas in mind to protect, not the ideas themselves. Locke, Lessig argues, held that if a resource had to necessarily be produced for exclusive use, then it's ownership should be a property right. However, this doesn't mean that exclusive property rights are upheld when the use of a resource is not exclusive by necessity. That is, Locke makes no claims about resources for which exclusivity is not a necessary condition for their ownership. Ideas fall into this category. So, Locke's theory is compatible with the understanding of ideas and copyright put forward in the Constitution.

The constitution states that “Congress has the power to promote the progress of science by securing for limited times to authors exclusive rights to their writings.” All that congress can legally do, then, is grant authors the security of a limited monopoly over the expression of their work, providing incentive for creativity.  Perhaps what is so important, so relevant about the disputes over intellectual property rights is that they mark a battle over whether we will be able to express ourselves in crucial ways that further our culture, or whether laws such as the Sunny Bono Copyright Extension Act will be allowed to curtail the spread of these ideas by shrinking public domain. The freedom to share ideas is the freedom to understand and acquire knowledge from others. When limited, copyrights serve a specific and genuine purpose; when extended, copyrights have begun to endanger free inquiry so necessary to social and cultural development.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek To 00:05:13): Amy Standen discusses copyright and the ownership of intellectual property in Hollywood, interviewing Bob Gordan, an attorney in Marin County of CA. Amy asks: what is the difference between a developed and an undeveloped idea and when, and who, can decide to draw the line? If we grant that ideas should be owned, why should ownership of them depend on their kind?
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek To 00:50:00): Ian Shoales on the History of Copyright—“You can't download Les Mis for free, but if you want to take a whack at rewriting Les Miserables, go ahead—it's legal.”