IP: Friend or Foe

The thing about writing limericks is that if you write a great, great limerick people will remember it but they will forget the name of the person who wrote it, and that’s okay. The permanence of anonymity, the immortality of the anonymous. Long live the jokes and who cares who thought them up. They are permanent. And if years from now you should see “The young fellow from Pocatello…” in a collection of verse, or written on a toilet stall, it’ll be anonymous even though I wrote it in a hotel room once in Pocatello, Idaho, and that’s okay. (Keillor, 15:48)


This past Saturday was Garrison Keillor’s last performance as the host of the beloved radio program “A Prairie Home Companion.” And I won’t lie, I’m taking it pretty hard. At the end of his final “News from Lake Wobegon” segment, Keillor talked about his love of limericks and how if his only legacy is a limerick written on a bathroom stall making young boys laugh, that would be enough for him, because “what more could you hope for?” (16:52).

Headshot of Garrison Keillor.

By Prairie Home Productions, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6753486

To wrap Keillor’s closing sentiment into our discussion of intellectual property, I think our current laws would show that we often do hope for more when we publicize our ideas. We may want to reap the benefits. We may want recognition. We may want to hang on to some semblance of control. This is not to say that it is wrong to hope for these things, but as someone who has been conditioned to believe ownership over ideas is the norm, I was struck by Keillor’s emphasis on anonymity. Keillor’s statement comes across as generous, as selfless; he is providing joy to future generations and is seemingly content with his name being lost to the wind. He doesn’t need credit. He doesn’t want profits from the royalties. Maybe it will inspire more young boys to write semi-inappropriate limericks and cause more people to laugh on a podcast one day.

This makes me wonder, “Would this be enough for me?” What if instead of a limerick, it was a technological innovation. Would I have it in me to willingly share my ideas to the benefit of others and not just myself, especially if there were a monetary profit up for grabs.

What interests me about intellectual property isn’t the nitty-gritty legal details, but the human motivations behind it. My example above of relinquishing rights over a limerick may be silly (a low-value piece of intellectual property), but I think it demonstrates how quickly an idea (once shared) can disseminate and lose attribution, and Keillor shows us one way a person can respond in that situation. He hopes that his work inspires others, becoming a vehicle for future innovation. We anticipate a joke being something we share freely and lose nothing in the telling. So, why do we feel this way about some ideas and not others? Money? Acknowledgment? And at what point do you weigh personal gain against the benefit of a wider population?

The peril of intellectual property is that it isn’t tangible: it isn’t land you can sign papers on, or an object to lock away in a safe. According to Steven Kinella in his 2008 article “Against Intellectual Property”, property laws only make sense when we’re dealing with conflicts over resources and scarcity, “The very possibility of conflict over a resource renders it scarce, giving rise to the need for ethical rules to govern its use. Thus, the fundamental social and ethical function of property rights is to prevent interpersonal conflict over scarce resources.” But can an idea be “taken” or “stolen” if it has been made accessible by the originator? Do you have less of your intellectual product once others get their hands on it as well?

Front cover of the book "Blown to Bits". Two hands holding a globe.

Image Source: www.bitsbook.com

I just started reading a book entitled “Blown to Bits” (2008) that tackles issues surrounding the digital explosion, and intellectual property happened to show up in the introductory chapter. In their example, the problem is not that we’re able to make copies of online material, but that we’re able to make perfect copies. A perfect copy means there is no need for the original and in fact, “even the notion of “original” is meaningless” (p. 7). Once something is digitized it becomes “bits,” or binary digits: text, photos, audio, movies, and software. They can be perfectly recreated, but this doesn’t mean the originator is suddenly lacking bits: the property doesn’t go “away.” They sum this concept up nicely saying, “But bits are an odd kind of property. Once I release them, everybody has them. And if I give you my bits, I don’t have any fewer” (p. 7). An “odd” kind of property, or maybe not property at all.

So, our laws may be slow on the uptake that intellectual property is not the same as tangible property, but I would guess that this is going to be a gradual, snail’s pace, change. But there seem to be some companies who are finding ways to bridge the gap between the two. For instance, Tesla. In a recent Forbes article, Elon Musk discussed the decision to have an open-source policy with their software saying, ““Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers” (p. 3, 2016). Tesla retains the patents for their battery, but allows their software to be open-source. By doing this, Musk attention is not on hiding a secret formula from his rivals, but on the top-notch developers who are drawn to the software and can make the product better. Can you imagine? A business philosophy that focuses on collaborators instead of competitors.

9 thoughts on “IP: Friend or Foe

  1. I am sad that I missed GK’s final episode. I remember thinking at one o’clock Saturday afternoon, “Not yet, it’ll be on in an hour,” and then at five, “Oh ___, I missed it.” I don’t remember what I was doing from two to four, but I was disappointed. I’ll listen to the recording when I get a chance.

    Your discussion of GK’s anonymity seemed to fit him and his personality. Humility is a trait he loves to highlight in his midwestern (Minnesota Norwegian Lutheran) characters. I think it is true of a culture that took to heart a misattributed Emerson quote: “…To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” Life and our work is about improving the world in some way, not about being remembered for doing it.

    Your commentary brought another question to my mind: if no one remembers who you are, what difference does it make if your name is attached to your work? In other words, if an author’s work is not consistently good enough for the author to be remembered, then what use is there in remembering who wrote it? There is no point in attributing to someone who is otherwise forgotten.

  2. Oh No! I missed the last episode?! 🙁 I used to listen all the time. Funny how little things like this can make us take a step back and take notice of what’s happening around us.

    I love how you focused on the “ego” of intellectual property and in a sense, it is what I seemed to focus on as well. I feel that if information, ideas, advances, and the like can help better the world, then it should be freely given. Put aside the ego of “it’s mine” or “I need recognition” and put the information out there for the world to see. I do understand that as people, we are proud of what we create or accomplish and to some extent, I too wonder if I could simply “let go” of a creation or piece of work. However, to me, this is different than making advances that would help humankind. I mean, education shouldn’t be something that is hard to come by…it should be freely shared and obtained. Advances in health/medicine, tech, all of those items should be shared and expanded on.

    And to end, I love your statement: “Can you imagine? A business philosophy that focuses on collaborators instead of competitors.” Perfect! 🙂

  3. AS to your last point I think competition and business are necessary and positive to industry. Never the less collaboration between firms in some capacity seems like a novel idea in some regards. I know that the CEO of overstock.com has an internal collaboration system where all employees have a direct way setup at their desks to funnel up ideas directly up the chain to the top. It’s kind of a company scale solution to the Hyekian knowledge problem, in a sense.

    I think another thing, talking about the slow legal changes you’re talking about, is that politics flows down stream from culture. The state tends to be a very reactionary entity responding to demands inside, outside, and interests within itself and outside. Weed is a modern example of this with many states in the union essentially nullifying federal law by legalizing the substance and refusing to cooperate with federal officials on this matter. I think IP law, like many other things the state is currently engaged in, will loosen up over time.

  4. The question of the very real human motivations here are important because IP involves myriad considerations: legal, ethical, moral and technical. Many moral positions in this area boil down to some kind of faith (not necessarily the religious kind). From that perspective, the aesthetically and practically darwinistic world of ideas that Nick and Dillon more-or-less propose is perfectly reasonable even if others wholly disagree with it. The economic perspective is somewhat more tangled and involves its own kind of faith in economic philosophies.

    I think about this a lot and have no clear answer for myself. I know that while I’m a big believer in copyright reform to adapt to the idea of intellectual property (or the things that intellectual property refers to), mostly in the form of deeply cutting back on the nature and intensity of most protections, I’m not one who proposes abolishing the notion altogether. I don’t believe that world would ultimately support creative and scientific innovation to the degree it does now. It’s hard to find real evidence to support any contentions of this sort on either side, but that’s my gut feeling based on my time on this rock and watching what’s happened to the publishing, journalism and music industries over the past 20 years. I think there’s value in the notion of securing limited rights for creators to the things they create even if those things exist as bits and bytes rather than on paper or stone.

    That said, there’s also some ego involved. And I’m not sure what’s wrong with that. I make things I’m proud of (sometimes) and want to share them (sometimes) with my name attached…why should that not have *some* protections the way I have some protections with physical property? Without those protections, my identity is much more easily cleaved from my work, and part of my identity is based on how people perceive me (in quality, in accuracy, etc). Why is that better than creative darwinism? It feels like a moral imperative for a political state—in this case the US—in the same way I believe there’s a moral imperative to care for the sick, the elderly, the parents, the economically disadvantaged, etc. I wouldn’t just throw that all out in favor of survival of the fittest either!

  5. I like the perspective you have on this topic, Ego is certainly a motivation in IP. And starting with a PHC reference isn’t bad either. 🙂

    You make a point about not loosing your IP just because someone else has it (having lost none of your bits or marbles). I do think you can loose the utility of it, the ability to transform that idea into income, though.

    It is also interesting to see, across the different views, that many of use find the IP laws (at the very least) a bit lacking. I think that is pretty strong evidence that there needs to be some changes in IP law.

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  8. Hi Noelle,
    I am particularly struck by how you concluded your post, “Can you imagine? A business philosophy that focuses on collaborators instead of competitors.” I am also intrigued by Chris’ response to your post, in which he discusses the role of ego in intellectual property.

    Combined, these two comments remind me of Philip’s argument about intellectual property (http://themajesticmetamorphicmoose.com/uncategorized/intellectual-property-a-necessary-oxymoron/). Basically, Philip argues that the term “intellectual property” is an oxymoron because information 1) wants to be expensive (and thus elitist) but 2) free (because it is democratic; easy to share).

    I would be curious to hear your thoughts about if Tesla’s and Keillor’s approaches to intellectual property are also a bit of an oxymoron. On one hand, both want to share their ideas, but on the other hand, both want to make money. Drawing upon these examples, do you agree with Philip that intellectual property is an oxymoron? And, does this really matter?

    Linnea

  9. Open source for Tesla makes sense to me. After all, if I am a developer I want my name attached to Tesla. It is a win win in the sense Tesla gets access to the best ideas that will work with their technology and the developer gets the value boost of being associated with a known brand. I see this as not only a strong business position based on value propositions but also a tremendous marketing ploy. What I don’t see is a benevolent act.

    Excellent thoughts raised in this piece. I have a lot to think on, thank you sharing.

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