If ideas were property, life as we know it would come to a grinding halt. I’ll explain later…
Knowledge can not be owned. Step away from your preconceived notions for a moment and consider it. How can knowledge be owned? When you learn something, you do not own that information. You know it. It’s part of your consciousness. You formulate opinions around it. It makes you think about other things — maybe related, maybe not. Ideas come to your brain because of this knowledge.
Perhaps you share the knowledge with others. Now they have the knowledge. Do they own the knowledge? Are you both co-owners of it? Of course not. You didn’t have any ownership of the knowledge just because you learned it, so how could they? Knowledge is information or facts and the understanding or organization of them.
An idea is a thought. A thought about what? A thought about anything you already know. Or maybe it’s a concept about several different things you know, but never thought about them together in that way before. If you never owned the knowledge you learned, how can you own the new knowledge that resulted from it? You can’t.
To be fair, knowledge not known to anyone else (this “original” idea, which actually wasn’t original because you used things you already knew — and didn’t own — to formulate it) can be controlled to the extent that it stays within your head. But if this “new” knowledge ever escapes, someone else will likely learn it. And so it goes.
We use knowledge to make decisions. We formulate ideas of what we will do every day based on the knowledge we have gained previously. If ideas are property, then the owners determine how the ideas are used:
“I have an idea, sweetheart. Let’s get a pizza tonight.”
“Sorry, dear, going out for pizza was John’s idea. He came up with it last week, but don’t worry. We can get a pizza, just so long as we give him credit for the idea and pay him his royalty fee. We certainly want to encourage him to keep coming up with these very creative ideas.”
“I would like to wear a blue shirt today.”
“The idea of wearing blue shirts was thought of by someone else. You’ll be infringing on their copyright if you copied that look.”
“Okay, I’ll wear blue and white stripes, then.”
“No can do. That’s a derivative work. You’ll need to request permission, in writing, and if they actually grant it to you, you’ll need to send them a check to pay their lawyers.”
These sound ridiculous, but someone, at some point, did in fact conceive to go out for pizza and wear blue shirts. Common sense tells us that in these instances, ideas are not owned by any one person, but why should it be any different with music or art or other ideas? Despite the fact that knowledge can’t be owned, certain kinds of knowledge have been categorized as “intellectual property”. How do certain types of thoughts, ideas, knowledge, and information become “property” and others don’t? And who gets to decide? It seems “intellectual property” is a bit of an oxymoron anyway.
I began this post by stating: ”If ideas were property, life as we know it would come to a grinding halt.” In the sense that proponents of intellectual property rights are almost always concerned with acknowledging (read: compensating) the “originator”, how could anyone do, say, or think anything without violating someone else’s intellectual property rights? Ideas — whether they be musical or otherwise — are rarely born in a vacuum. They are the result of prior experience and knowledge. If those things are property, for which we owe the owners of some royalty, we’d all be broke or risk getting fined and going to prison for violating the law. Assuming most people wouldn’t want to put themselves in either of those situations, it seems life in general would come to a screeching halt, indeed.