The ownership of ideas and the “Unoriginal Genius”

Posted: January 28, 2012 at 11:19 am

The following was inspired by an interview on CBC Radio’s Spark with Marjorie Perloff.

When you write poetry you’re using words you did not invent (though you could) to convey some idea. Likely you also use phrases and sentence structures you did not invent. Further, you may be be using allegory and referring to stories and ideas you also did not invent. So where is the line between repetition and contribution? IP and copyright clearly make the point that a particular arrangement of form may be unique and attributable to one person (or corporation).

Things get sticky when we go beyond specific words on a page or particular arrangements of physical materials. For example, software is covered by copyright; the specific arrangement of syntax and words in a digital file can be considered the same as the arrangement of words on a page. So why are there such things as software patents? They exist because (largely) corporations seek to control not only the implementation (the code) but the very process, the algorithm itself.

If you take an idea from someone else’s writing and restate it in completely different words, that is not infringement. In the world of code, a particular software process could be reimplemented so that it does not infringe on the original, but yet to the user of the program the process may be indistinguishable. What is the problem with this? Well, the algorithm is quite similar to an idea. It can be realized in many different forms without loosing its identity. I don’t think it makes any sense to attribute ownership to an idea because there is no obvious objective way of measuring how that idea is related to other ideas in order to determine its (degree of) originality.

The conceptual content of an algorithm, or a poem, is both a function of the uniqueness of the reader (associating each symbolic representation to experiences and practises in their life) and the commonality of the culture. The same relation applies to the creator of the poem or algorithm. So we return to the question, where is the line between the cultural norm and the unique and individual contribution?

I think that a part of the answer is a consideration of scope. If we look very tightly at a supposed contribution then it may seem very unique and interesting compared to the background. If we broaden the scope (look at ideas in other contexts and in a broader time-frame), then perhaps what was seen as unique and original suddenly blends into the background and its uniqueness is reduced, or even obliterated.

I would go so far to say that individual ownership (of any idea) is flawed because no human creation happens in isolation. The argument of ownership can only apply to a physical form that is implemented by a creative individual: “I made this, its mine”. That ownership only applies to the physical object, and not the content.

All creative endeavour is social and cultural, and as such owes most of its existence to culture itself. Even if you could make a particular individual unique contribution in isolation, it would have no value because it would exist outside of the context of culture. No one could even understand it because it would not depend on cultural norms for communication and purpose.

So how can one “own” an idea that cannot be excised from culture? It seems that our non-communal notions of owning physical things has crossed over to apply to ideas, but I don’t think the relation holds at all. You could even argue that you can’t own a physical “thing” because you did not pay for all aspects of its creation; somewhere in the process someone, or something, looses out (a worker not paid a living wage, an animal’s suffering, the environment), and you owe something by “owning” that object.

The worst thing about all this effort for uniqueness and originality funnelled into IP vaults, is that it deprives culture of those elements. If we lack a background of ideas and practises then that can only hurt future innovation, creativity, and originality. Ideas, including abstract processes, are cultural and social notions, and without a commons, they have no meaning and no value.