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The "Right" to Own Knowledge

Homer's picture

The Thinker

Two people on opposite sides of the world have exactly the same idea at the same time. Which one of those two people would be most morally justified in claiming to own the exclusive rights to that idea?

Should it be the first to dash through the doors of the USPTO office, with a big wad of cash in his hand?

Isn't that just further rewarding someone for already being affluent (or quick, or both), rather than rewarding him for having an original thought?

And how original are anyone's thoughts anyway?

Surely our knowledge is merely the sum of what we have been taught, and not some divine gift handed down from God, entitling the bearer to exclusive privileges. How can anyone claim exclusive rights to that which has been collected from others, such as authors; teachers; parents and peers? Are those contributors not equally entitled to attribution and rights to that knowledge? Are such contributors not also entitled to benefit from those ideas? Given the scope of where one acquires knowledge, shouldn't those beneficiaries encompass all mankind?

This is the essence of Free Software.

"Nothing today, likely nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new: Culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion, each new creator building on the works of those who came before."


"All creators draw in part on the work of those who came before, referring to it, building on it, poking fun at it; we call this creativity, not piracy."

~ Judge Alex Kozinski, US Court of Appeals 9th Circuit
White v. Samsung Electronics America, Inc., 989 F.2d 1512, 1512 (9th Cir. 1993)

Of course innovation is more than just a collection of data, it is defined by the particular arrangement of that data to form something unique. But again, the uniqueness of that arrangement can never be proved conclusively, beyond the documented "proof" of who was the first to publicly claim uniqueness ... and then pay for the privilege.

Also consider that the arrangement of data is more an implementation than knowledge of something fundamental. Being able to arrange the pieces of a puzzle in a particular order should not prohibit others from also doing so, even if those others only discover how to do so by learning from someone else. Attempting to prohibit such a thing is an attempt to prohibit the objective of learning itself, which is a gross violation of academic principles and human endeavour. Those puzzles were not created by such inventors, they are the fundamental axioms upon which all knowledge and learning is based. Should we be prohibited from learning simply because others before us have done so?

Klondike Gold Rush Prospectors

To claim ownership of knowledge is like claiming the rights of a God. We did not create the universe, we merely live in it. It'd be nice to think that we could do so harmoniously, without trying to claim exclusivity to every particle of matter or thought in that universe, like a pack of rabid prospectors rushing murderously, flintlocks and pickaxes in hand, towards a glint of gold in a rock-face.

Then there is this postulation that innovation is not merely the formulation of a unique idea, but is actually the business development of that idea, and that those who invest in such development deserve special consideration, because without that development society would be deprived of the benefits of that idea. This justification is somewhat of a euphemism however, not to mention a false dichotomy, since the "beneficiary" is more likely to be just a single company, rather than society as a whole, given the exclusionary nature of this knowledge.

The Constitution of the United States of America

Article. I, Section. 8.

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Al Capone

Essentially this is nothing more than a means of promoting business ... and a single business at that, instead of some greater altruistic or academic goal. It seems that the great institution of American democracy itself is founded upon the principles of racketeering. Is it any wonder that American culture draws so much criticism, when its most fundamental tenets are so reprehensible?

America is not unique in this respect, and indeed was not the first to implement such unethical tenets. That dubious honour goes to England, which introduced the first Licensing Act three and a half centuries ago in 1662. However, the ruthlessness with which American businesses, and their political lackeys, pursue the totalitarian agenda of "securing exclusive rights" to everything, even thought itself, for anyone greedy (and rich) enough to claim them, is stunning in its scope and ferocity.

Witness UMG's recent claim that simply discarding a promo CD is a violation of copyright, for example. Such examples are by no means uncommon, in fact it seems to be the new business craze sweeping America ("craze" would appear to be a very appropriate description).

American-based global corporations are even using lobbyists to spread the disease of Intellectual Monopolies across the rest of the world too. Thanks to pressure exerted on British ISPs, primarily by media moguls like the BPI (in the name of "Intellectual Property considerations") many British Internet subscribers have now lost the right to privacy - one of the most basic civil rights, since those ISPs are being coerced into monitoring; recording and censoring their customers' Internet communications (an action that previously required a warrant issued by the Home Office, on a case by case basis, and depended on actual due cause for suspicion that a crime was being committed).

Apparently the entire population of Britain has been declared "guilty", before and regardless of being proved innocent, of something that should not even be a crime in the first place, since this is a wholly civil matter. The civilians who comprise the members of our business community, are now the lawmakers, it seems.

Brain Cell

Using the premise of "business considerations" to justify state-sponsored racketeering is a very poor excuse to subject mankind to a totalitarian regime of intellectual slavery. Granting Intellectual Monopoly to businesses under the premise that they "need" to recover their investment costs using "royalties", rather than by more ethical means, is merely further rewarding someone for already being sufficiently affluent to spend money on a patent applications and research (or more likely - lobbying), instead of rewarding actual invention, which may have already occurred elsewhere without financial backing, and should in no way be interpreted as proof or justification of exclusive "ownership".

"Another problem is that the social returns from innovation do not accord with the private returns associated with the patent system, Stiglitz said. The marginal benefit from innovation is that an idea may become available sooner than it might have. But the person who secures the patent on it wins a long-term monopoly, creating a gap between private and social returns."

~ Professor Joseph Stiglitz, 2001 Nobel Laureate in Economics

In fact it would be a far more prudent course of action to ensure that the "right" to such knowledge was not granted exclusively, so that any number of people could further develop and implement that idea, thus benefiting all of society ... probably more quickly too, and not just a single company and those obligated to be its "customers" (i.e. slaves to Intellectual Monopoly). It's an entirely false dichotomy to claim that the only viable means of innovating is through the grant of exclusive privileges, justified by financial investment. Humans should not be slot-machines that only yield innovation by inserting coins into them. Surely we don't need financial motivation just to be able to think. As for the subsequent business development of those ideas, why should that be different from any other business development - such as building houses or cars? Do those manufacturers need exclusive rights in order to make their business ventures viable? Clearly not. So why should the computer software; music; publishing; film and television industries be any different?

Using exclusive access to knowledge as a business device, presents an unjustifiably unfair advantage (state aid) to a select few, effectively creating a monopoly which may be abused to derive profit, to the exclusion of all competition, even in the absence of a viable product or service. That is clearly not capitalism, it is a form of totalitarianism called corporatism - where political and financial control of a nation shifts from the democratically elected representatives of the people, to undemocratically self-appointed and self-serving corporate dictators.


Such devices should not be necessary. Surely business development is its own reward, assuming that development is successful, and if it isn't then that is hardly anyone's fault but the developers. If businesses find that the manifestation of an idea fails to generate profit, then perhaps they need to consider the possibility that the idea itself is flawed; or that the implementation needs redesigned; or that it should be marketed differently, rather than immediately jumping to compensate for their own incompetence by employing racketeering techniques. They have my sympathies, I'm sure, but I had hoped that the days of building empires with the blood of slaves were over.

Business is an opportunity, not a "right".

We are not all responsible for the success or failure of others' business ventures; we have no moral obligation to ensure that others profit by their inventions, especially when those "inventors" use their ill-gotten exclusive "rights" as a weapon against us, to prohibit our pursuit of academic learning.

Snake Oil

The principles of Intellectual "Property" transforms business from being an opportunity to being a "right" that is protected by unethical laws, with unjustifiable exclusivity. It is nothing but snake-oil peddled by carpetbaggers. The consumption of this snake-oil is then enforced by laws that are instigated by corrupt politicians, at the behest of those same carpetbaggers who bribe those politicians.

That isn't "innovation", it's racketeering.


Jayboy75's picture

Knowledge Ownership

The subject of intellectual property has so many gray areas that it's difficult to sum up all of its pitfalls, but I think you've done a fair job of it here. However, I disagree that in all cases, "Using exclusive access to knowledge as a business device, presents an unjustifiably unfair advantage (state aid) to a select few" as you've mentioned. Knowledge does have ownership to some degree; I can, for example, go out and start manufacturing cars with all the typical parts - steering wheel, engine, transmission, four tires, gear shift, etc. but I can never call that car a Ford or a Chrysler. Those companies own the branding of their products, not the idea of the car itself. They may own the technologies used to manufacture their engines, but they do not own the ability to make an engine. What you've said here crosses over into the idea that copyright, trademark, and other types of "knowledge ownership" somehow infringe on the rights of people to develop new ideas, when in fact these forms of ownership are simply a means of protecting an identity. Allowing free use of knowledge without restriction would be the equivalent of returning to a Native American mindset in which everybody owns everything. Land and real estate might as well be nixed as well, because the same grass grows on my land as on yours. Knowledge can become infinitely more abstract than a patch of earth, granted, but there still needs to be a certain level of ownership given over it.


Homer's picture

Identity is not "property"

You're confusing two entirely different concepts: identity and property.

Falsely assuming another's identity, whether it's a person or company, is simply fraud, not theft. This is exactly the fallacy which Intellectual Monopolists abuse as propaganda to make others believe copyright violation is "theft". If a name could rightfully be claimed as "property", then there wouldn't be more than one person in the world called "John Smith", for example.

Now certainly, I understand the need to avoid brand confusion, and equally the need to protect both people and companies from fraud, but the use of trademarks is the wrong approach, since it relies on the false and profoundly immoral premise that knowledge (in this case a name) may be someone's exclusive property.

Then you go on to confuse knowledge with tangible goods, stating that "the free use of knowledge without restriction" would somehow magically cause all material (or "real") property to enter common ownership, however you offer absolutely no rationale or justification for why you believe that might happen.

The fact remains that mankind flourished for millennia without any form of "IP" protection whatsoever. Local and international commerce thrived, and our culture evolved at an exponential rate, culminating in four centuries of the most inventive and creative period in history: the renaissance ... a depth and scope of invention and creativity which has never been matched since.

Does it not strike you as unusual that the end of the renaissance exactly coincides with the birth of "IP"?

Food for thought.

Anony Mouse's picture


Right to the own knowledge this is the good historyical site to the old viewers.

Anony Mouse's picture

A Good Thought.....!!

Sir, You are indeed a very broad minded person..I am very impressed by the thoughts you expressed. Its a fact, that knowledge cannot be bounded with chains of reservations. The more we share the more we gain..
Thanks for this free minded article.

Anony Mouse's picture

Let’s imagine a world where

Let’s imagine a world where piracy doesn’t exist and copy-protection is perfect. Let us also use Adobe Photoshop as an example which, as of this writing, costs 649$USD + tax. That price is high, but Photoshop is also unarguably best-in-class. So who would buy it in this piracy-free world of ours? Professional graphic artists for one, as their productivity gains would far outweigh the costs. Corporations who get volume discounts and value the support and stability provided by Adobe. And perhaps certain rich people whose perceived pain of paying that amount of money is so low, that the benefits of using Photoshop over very good alternatives are higher than the costs. So what about the rest of us ?

Homer's picture

The wrong side of the argument

I am not advocating for "piracy" (which is actually copyright infringement, and has nothing to do with theft), I am advocating for an end to "Intellectual Monopoly", thus making the concept of "piracy" utterly moot. My argument has absolutely nothing to do with money whatsoever, it is only about this supposed "right" to claim exclusive ownership of published knowledge (a.k.a. "Intellectual Property") - which I contend is completely bogus.

People can and do sell Freely licensed content all the time. Here's just one example:

Tales from the Public Domain: BOUND BY LAW?

As for what impoverished people are supposed to do if they can't afford something, that is no different with software than any other commodity. I can't afford a Bugatti Veyron (at around 2 Million dollars), but that doesn't mean I have some sort of automatic right to have one.

OTOH Bugatti do not, and should not, have the "right" to prevent me from building my own car from scratch, even if the results of that are identical to a Veyron.

That is the difference between real property and "Intellectual Property" (i.e. unethical monopoly).

Again, this is not about money, and never has been (except from the perspective of those who wish to abuse what should be the basic human right to access and utilise all published knowledge). It is about corrupt laws that support monopolies through the inhibition of the dissemination of knowledge, under the pretext that such knowledge can and should be "owned" and controlled exclusively by those "owners".

This is a fundamental perversion of the principles of academia and human endeavour, and like all other forms of monopoly it is also extremely anti-capitalist (corporatist) doctrine, and should be illegal - not protected by law.

Homer's picture

Nobel Laureates agree with my asserions :)

This is uncanny:

By Dugie Standeford for Intellectual Property Watch
MANCHESTER, UK - The basic framework of the intellectual property (IP) regime aims to “close down access to knowledge” rather than allowing its dissemination, Professor Joseph Stiglitz said at a 5 July lecture on “Who Owns Science?” Stiglitz, a 2001 Nobel Laureate in Economics, and Professor John Sulston, a 2002 Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine, launched Manchester University’s new Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation.

Both were highly critical of today’s patent system, saying it stifles science and innovation.

IP is often compared to physical property rights but knowledge is fundamentally different, Stiglitz said. It is a public good with two attributes - “non-rivalrous competition” and non-excludability - meaning it is difficult to prevent others from enjoying its benefits. That runs counter to IP regimes, which are worse than exclusion because they create monopoly power over knowledge that is often abused, he said.

Patent monopolies are believed to drive innovation but they actually impede the pace of science and innovation, Stiglitz said. The current “patent thicket,” in which anyone who writes a successful software programme is sued for alleged patent infringement, highlights the current IP system’s failure to encourage innovation, he said.

Another problem is that the social returns from innovation do not accord with the private returns associated with the patent system, Stiglitz said. The marginal benefit from innovation is that an idea may become available sooner than it might have. But the person who secures the patent on it wins a long-term monopoly, creating a gap between private and social returns.

It's nice to have one's work vindicated by such esteemed sources.