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.