Few things are so deeply rooted in human nature as the idea of property. One of the first words a child learns is “mine”. Our whole civilization is based on the right to own and own property. 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that property is the source of all our inequalities, conflicts and wars. A garden fence or a national border arouses the same possessive feelings. This idea, although obviously wrong, laid the foundation for an entire alternative political tradition – communism – which completely rejected the idea of property. You may recall that this turned out to be the most unpopular program in the history of politics. We love our property and our entire legal system is designed to protect it. Even the Chinese Communists are now capitalists, although they claim not to be.
Much more curious is the idea of intellectual property, which was designed in the 19th century and has been confusing ever since. Intellectual property law is designed to protect the creators of scientific inventions, books, music, etc. Before these laws existed, there was little or no protection. Shakespeare stole most of his historical plots directly from the stories of Holinshed. Composers like Mozart and Haydn had their music shamelessly copied across Europe, and Charles Dickens’ books were reprinted in America without permission or payment. No one felt embarrassed about it: it was taken for granted.
Now we have copyright laws and armies of lawyers to defend intellectual property, although stealing other people’s ideas is more popular than ever. Almost every week we read another high profile case from academia or publishing. Authors are regularly accused of removing pieces of their works from previously published authors. Politicians borrow entire paragraphs of their speeches from more gifted artists. Recently there have even been reports of preachers copying each other’s sermons.
Intellectual property is difficult to defend in the Internet age. Once ideas, words, or images are posted on the web, they effectively become public property, no matter what the law says. Entire orchestral performances and even operas can be compressed on smart phones, as well as image galleries. A library of books can be only a few kilobytes weightless on a shelf. Intellectual property has always been easier to steal than the strongest. Now, much of it is dematerialized to the point where it almost asks to be stolen.
One of the aims of intellectual property laws is to defend new and original ideas. But there isn’t much new under the sun – perhaps especially when it comes to sermons and political speeches. Everything has already been thought and said, and will be thought over and over again tomorrow. Most of our culture in the days of the ancient Greeks consists of borrowing and repetitions. Most films, novels and works of art are taken directly from the universal human storybook. Mark Twain liked to say: “I never had an original thought. He knew how rare such things are. Original thoughts, when and if they appear, should certainly be cared for and protected like delicate plants. But the vast majority of what we call intellectual property is just a distant echo of the past. We owe everything to a few original thinkers scattered throughout history, whose intellectual property we appropriate on a daily basis without a word of thanks. Without them we would have no culture at all.
Copyright: David Bouchier