Can You Own An Idea?

Can You Own An Idea?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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16 responses to “Can You Own An Idea?”

  1. i’ll try not to get into a debate here (if that is possible haha!) but i think to answer your question we really need a good definition of “ownership”. i don’t yet have a complete definition, but i think a partial definition would involve the following attributes:
    1) the owner(s) has/have the ultimate say in the use of their property
    2) the owner(s) has/have the ability to exclude others from the usage of their property
    3) the owned property must have well defined boundaries

    and feel free to add more. i reckon we should debate these relating only to physical property since we are likely to agree in that regard. then we can see if these rules invalidate idea ownership in any way.

    wrt physical property ownership, i think that liquids are an interesting one. for example, according to (3) it seems possible to own water that is in a bottle, but if one pours that water out of the bottle into a river then one cannot define the boundaries so it seems impossible to own at that point (assuming the river is so far completely unowned). what do you reckon?

    • Sorry for the delay. I was moving from Thailand to Spain.

      I’m with you on Point #1.

      Point #2 seems like a problem because it rewards successful coercion. You own your car but, despite your efforts, somebody takes it. It therefore ceases to be property because you did not “have the ability to exclude others from the usage of [your] property.” The same would apply to your life since it can be forcibly taken from you. Thus you would not own your own life under condition #2.

      Point #3 can easily apply to physical things. Cars, gold and furniture all have boundaries. But an ocean has boundaries too. And, of course, I get thinking about IP and the fact that the song, Yesterday, has no boundaries. The software code for OSX has no boundaries and therefore could not be owned by anyone because it would not meet the definition of property. But an ocean would be property. So would 100 cubic parsecs of space. The boundary requirement seems to introduce more problems than solutions.

      • cool – spain is very nice!

        yeah i agree with your points about (2) as well actually. with (2) i was attempting to create a rule which would prevent people from claiming ownership of things completely beyond their control, such as “the stratosphere” or “the moon”. but your rebuttals are valid so i will scrap rule 2. maybe a better rule would be something along the lines of the homesteading principle. something like “a person has the option to make an unowned resource their property if they put it to active use”. i’ll call this rule 2.1 so that we can both refer to it.

        i know we disagree about ip, but i was hoping to get a set of rules which are true for non-ip and then see if these also apply to ip or not. my thinking is that all property will have the same characteristics (whether ip or not) but maybe my assumption here is wrong. what do you reckon? do you think that it is possible to write a set of rules which apply equally to all forms of property?

        i’m still not convinced that we should throw out rule 3 yet though. focusing still on physical property, maybe instead of discussing a river, how about if i change the example to that of air in the atmosphere. this way you could say that if you have a bottle of air then that is air that you own, but as soon as you open the bottle outside (and maybe fill it with water to prove that it is empty of air) then the air gets mixed into the atmosphere and so is no longer possible to own. unless you reckon that it is possible for someone to own the whole atmosphere? my thinking is that it would not be possible to own the atmosphere – mainly because it is unbounded, but i would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

        • Air, water and other natural resources create special challenges when it comes to defining property. I think you can own the right to the use of them but not own them as you can other with property you create yourself. So a guy on a 40-acre farm owns the right to use the land but does not literally own the land. This is because the definition I use for property is; a person’s life and what he creates (non-procreatively) with his life. He doesn’t create the land but he creates the wealth to buy the use of the land from someone else who owns the use of it. So the guy who claims to own the moon or even the use of the moon has to demonstrate he is using it in some way.

          But I said he “has to” demonstrate this and that introduces new problems. Why does he have to? Who says so? What happens of he doesn’t demonstrate it?

          You have to realize I come at all of this from a perspective of thinking the best organization of any society would be achieved by using Contractual Republics. Why? Because that permits every individual to exercise total control over his own property. And people with different beliefs and priorities can organize themselves into whatever republic suits them and thus live in their idea of Freedom.

          Why is that relevant to these definitions? Because these people would be free to use their own definitions of property inside their own republic. Since everyone in that republic would agree on definitions from the outset there is no discord. That’s why you and I don’t really need to agree on the ownership of IP. People who see it your way would be able to organize themselves into a republic that defines IP a certain way where nobody can own what they produce. Fine. No conflict.

          The only central principle of all Contractual Republics is the non-use and non-support of coercion. So people who want to live by coercing other people into supporting them or otherwise plundering people who do not agree to the plunder have no support in a Contractual Republic system. Perhaps the coercers could create their own society of mutual coercion and plunder and see how that goes.

          All the rest of us (probably 99% or more, really) can live maximally productive and happy lives where we live in republics that share our values, definitions and life priorities.

          • fair enough, but i think if you want to set up a contractual republic you will still need to know what constitutes “property” within that republic – just so that everyone is on the same page – hence the need for these rules.

            i’m not sure if i see any difference between “owning the use of” and “owning” though. could you expand on that a bit? for example, what is the difference between owning the use of farm land and owning farm land? is there anything that the farmer is allowed to do if he owns the land vs anything he is not allowed to do if he only owns the use of that land?

            • I don’t think there is a practical difference between owning the land and owning the use of it. But in order to be logically consistent with the property definition – A person’s life and what he creates with his/her life – we need to recognize that he did not create the land and therefore it is not property. However, he created the wealth to be able to buy the use of the land from someone else who had the use of the land. The “use” is property. The land is not. It might sound like mere semantics but it’s important to be logically consistent if one wants an integrated system of social interaction.

              All of that said, groups of people who disagree and want ‘crazy’ definitions and premises would still be free to live that way – absent coercion – as long as they all agreed among themselves on those premises. Of course, they run into problems when they want to trade with other republics that use different definitions. Telling the Ford Motor Company that a car isn’t property or that they can’t patent a technological feature will not be mutually agreed and therefore Ford won’t sell them a car nor allow it to be taken without payment. So some folks will be rather isolated because of their beliefs. But that’s life. Some people would want to be isolated.

              I hope you’re seeing the revolutionary nature of Contractual Republics. No other social system allows the peaceful co-existence of all individual desires and priorities. None. The ‘best’ we have now are so-called democracies where 51% (and in practice far fewer) can dictate terms to the 49% and serious dissenters go to prison. The application of reason leads to Contractual Republics and true Freedom for every individual.

              • hmm. how is land different to any other form of property in that regard though? for example, if i dug up a diamond then would you say that i do not own it because i did not create it? would you say that i only own the use of it?

                i do like your idea of contractual republics, and i think it sounds like a good way to go. humans do seem to respect pieces of paper with rules on them (or mobile phone apps with rules for that matter).

                i’m not sure how useful it would be when it comes to a clash between for example anarcho-communists and propertarians though. the communists i have talked to seem pretty keen on looting and pillaging based on “needs” which include anything and everything. i don’t think anything other than force is going to hold them back from stealing stuff from the propertarians – they claim to have no concept of theft (but strangely they do whine when people take their own stuff haha).

                but i’m not saying this discredits your idea of contractual republics. i cannot think of any political system which adequately resolves a dispute between someone who believes in property and someone who does not. your idea of contractual republics may still be the best the best known option for social organisation. i shall have to look further into your idea 🙂

                • The diamond is a ‘use’ situation as well. So is gold, rainwater, air, etc.

                  I talk about crime and justice in the book. Briefly, the network of republics does not support coercive people. So when something is stolen from the baker, the butcher will not sell to the coercer. (If he does, it’s a violation of his agreement and then nobody will trade with him.) So coercers have the problem of supplying everything they need for themselves. Until a coercer makes restitution he can’t buy food, electricity, water, mobile phone service, clothes, fuel, etc. He’s outside the network of non-coercers and that’s a lonely place.

                  The beauty of all of this is, a shot is never fired. It requires no coercion to function. It is the first social system ever to operate with zero coercion yet it does not require everyone to live with the same values and priorities.

                  • you’re still going to need to use force against the communists though right? otherwise they are just going to keep on looting and mooching off of the people who produce things. if non-communists never offer any resistance to having their things stolen then they are going to run out of things and starve pretty quickly.

                    but getting back to the diamond, gold, land, cases where you say that people can only own the use of these things, and not actually “own them”. wouldn’t that be the same for all physical objects? for example, a computer is merely made of elements which have been dug up from the ground, purified and assembled.

                    • 1. There is no operational coercion anywhere in a Contractual Republic. It only comes from “bad” people. So, no, there is no coercion against coercers or Communists. They are ostracized from everyone else’s production. That’s a massive concept. Any one of us only needs to think a minute about what we can produce 100% independently from all others to realize the power of ostracism. Repeated offenses without restitution could be a functional death sentence – self inflicted, of course.

                      2. We only have the periodic table to work with (haha) but we also make refinements and improvements to those elements, compounds, etc. The Mona Lisa consists of natural elements but it was created from the life and IP of a master artist. Therefore it is rightfully his property.

  2. sorry, i can’t reply to that last one – there is no ‘reply’ button.

    1. i don’t get how you can ostricise someone who feels fine about breaking into your house and stealing your food. if they have no moral qualms about this (and most communists i have talked to don’t) and if you are determined to be a pacifist then why would they ever need to work? they can just use you as their money earning slave.

    if you were to say that people are permitted to defend their property and life then i would agree that a communist who acts in an immoral manner will be cut off and this would be an effective death sentence until they make restitution. but if people are not permitted to defend themselves or their property (pacifism) then the communists are just going to loot and plunder for their entire lives with no negative ramifications.

    2. but at what point does your work count as an improvement? all value is subjective – simply moving something from one place to another may increase or decrease its value (eg water in the desert is more valuable than water in a rainy city). likewise, digging up a diamond takes work. the diamond is worth nothing to anybody before it is discovered, but once you dig it up then it is very valuable. does the moving of an object count as an improvement? if you take the $ value of something as an indication of improvement, then you have to say that moving something is an improvement. and if you say that you can only own things which you have made an improvement to, then a diamond falls under this category. even land falls under this category – merely turning the soil over alters its value.

    i guess we are discussing semantics here and its really not that important, but i would not use the phrase “own the use of” at all – i would just say “own”.

  3. Oops, that’s a blog setting. I’ll fix it.

    1. Defense of your property is fine. But it can be defended without coercion.

    2. Let’s say a guy breaks into my home when I’m not there and takes my food, money and television. a) He is detected and identified by a justice company. This happens quickly because of proprietary technologies. b) He is informed that he needs to make, say, $2,000 restitution to me plus $3,000 in costs to detect and identify him. c) He either says, “Sorry, I’ll make restitution.” or he says, “Hey, man, I don’t believe in private property so screw you.” In the former case justice is swift, no property is lost and the offender stays in the republic. In the latter case he is identified as a willful coercer and the entire network of producers (everyone) shuts off trade with him. Immediately. His lights go off. He can’t buy fuel for his car. He can’t buy food. He can’t use a phone. He can’t cross privately owned property. (Which is all property.)

    At this point he might realize, ‘Hey, I should just pay back the $5,000 and not coerce in the future.’

    No shots are fired. No behemoth State agencies need be fed. No coercion is used. Lost property is restored to its owners.

    3. Short answer to your other question. Yes, moving or otherwise improving the subjective value of something creates property. Driving a truckload of ice cold Coke to a desert resort increases subjective value and is property. In some ways it does come down to semantics but the principle is that part of a person’s life was used to alter or create something. Think of life and property in a similar way to energy and mass. They are interchangeable and exactly measurable.

    As a side note, I think ‘lease’ might be a better word than ‘sale’ for a many transactions in the higher social technology of Contractual Republics. You lease a song file from Led Zeppelin or a movie file from Warner Bros. and the lease has mutually agreed terms and conditions. People can more easily understand that concept.

    • cool. i’m with you on 3 there. but 1 and 2 i still don’t think what you propose will work. i mean i think it will work for everybody who respects private property and has a drive to improve their life (which is 99% of everyone), but that does not include the communists. communists won’t care if they get slapped with a $5000 fine – they just won’t pay it, and they will continue to steal food from the houses and shops around them to survive. i know it is possible to keep people out of property without using coercion of any kind (eg a locked door or a high wall will do this and are clearly not coercive), but just think how many houses in your current geographical area could be broken into. i’m guessing all of them. if some communist has been excommunicated from the system (no mobile phone, no power, no running water, as you say) then this only matters to them if they cannot get these things elsewhere. if they can break into people’s houses to get food and have a shower whenever they like then it doesn’t matter that they don’t have their own money to buy food and shower. likewise if they need medical attention a couple of them can go to a doctor, point a gun at his head and demand treatment. if he refuses then they can kill him and find another doctor.

      my answer to this problem is to allow people to defend themselves. for example, a home owner might demand that the intruder leave the premises by threatening them with a baseball bat, or the doctor might subscribe to a security service who will come over and defend his clinic when he is in such a situation – using force if needs be. but if i understand you correctly, you are against this?

      • 1. I think you’re underestimating the predicament the coercer ends up in. How does he steal medical care? Electricity? Three meals every day? School for his kids? How does he protect himself from others who live as he does? The percentage of people who would devote themselves to that lifestyle is vanishingly small.

        2. Self-defense with bats or whatever is fine but it’s a very low technology. Perhaps defense systems will be innovated where burglars or robbers are stunned by a non-lethal shock or gassed with a non-lethal compound that ensures they’re never successful. We have crime today because it is profitable. (More correctly it is plunder, not profit.) Once you remove the gains of crime the motivation disappears.

        • 1. he would steal medical care with a gun – if he needs an operation where he is unconscious then he would take a friend with a gun to help him out. i know this is only going to be a tiny fraction of people who do this – the commies but its still worth thinking about…

          electricity – he might break into someone’s garage and plug in a heater. if i understand you correctly, people would not be allowed to use self-defence to force him to leave because this would be coercion? assume he has no kids. also, others who live as he does would not be a threat to him. they would probably be his friends.

          2. the baseball bat was just a crude example. gas is probably ok if nobody is home – if there is a warning on the front door saying something like “warning – gas will be released unless correct keycode is entered to disable it” then i think this would not count as coercion. but then the commies will just start breaking into houses where there is already someone home, since the home owner would not have the knockout gas enabled for fear of himself being knocked out.

          i’m just saying that i think that self-defence involving the use of force may be necessary. maybe only even during a transition phase? but i think people naturally have a desire to defend themselves and i think that to deny them this right is to condemn them to death in some extreme cases.

  4. How many cases of surgery at gunpoint do you know of? Again, the number of people who would devote their lives to this type of behavior is vanishingly small.

    You can create a hypothetical of the guy who successfully steals all his food every day, all his clothes, all his housing, a gun, all his ammunition, all his products and services, etc. But it’s like a guy at the roulette wheel betting on red 100 times in a row and having it come up that way. Coercion is not a sustainable lifestyle in a Contractual Republic.

    If we step back and ask, how can we stop coercive behavior over 50-100 years? The answer surely lies in taking any gain out of it and adding in some loss. Contractual Republics can accomplish exactly that. ‘Bad’ people quickly learn – at a young age – that coercion always ends badly for them. It’s always detected and it always costs more than the potential gain.

    I have a chapter about this in The Freedom App and it explains why and how all the ‘good’ people are in the crime detection business for a personal profit. To the coercer, everybody is a potential cop who will be compensated – at his expense – for exposing his coercion.

    Yes, everyone has the right to self-defense. We’ve had that for a million years. We need an improvement in our social technology.

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