Ideas Should Be Free

The title of this post is somewhat inaccurate. What I believe, in fact, is that ideas need to be free. This thought, however, is not widely accepted in our Western capitalist culture. Our society has constructed systems and laws around the protection of “intellectual property” in order to induce profits for thinkers and inventors and to encourage continued innovation.

This mental model shows a lack of understanding of how ideas are formed and why thinkers innovate. Corporations are motivated by profit and exist to protect their process and expand their profitability. When corporations get hold of an idea, they push for greater protection and a reduced ability by others to compete. It turns out that the whole idea of “intellectual property” comes, not from the need to protect ideas, but from the desire to translate those ideas into profitability. This is where our capitalist system demands that we strictly enforce copyrights and patent protections.

Ideas, however, do not originate with faceless, soulless corporations. Ideas originate with people. Sometimes they come unbidden, sometimes they arrive in response to creatively toying with thoughts and other ideas. Let’s look at each possibility in relation to the need for protecting ideas through restricting their adoption by others. Ideas that come unbidden are the ones that arrive in the middle of the night. Do you know anyone who sleeps with a notepad at the side of their bed? There are people who can’t sleep because their mind is spinning, running, moving around ideas, thoughts, possibilities. Only by writing down these ideas for processing during the daytime can the subject obtain a peaceful sleep. Some people wake from their sleep with ideas half or wholly formed and need to write about before the ideas are lost. Would these ideas stop coming if the subjects were not paid to produce them? Of course not. Is the case of thinkers who purposely create new ideas very different? I submit that it is not. In the same way that athletes train and politicians campaign and artists design, thinkers think. Whether their thoughts are useful or not, interesting or not, novel or not, thinking is what defines these people. That won’t change by paying them more or less.

Even though it’s not always clear where ideas come from, it usually involves other ideas. Ideas seem more organic than synthetic, that is to say they grow more than they are created. By being aware of more ideas, a thinker can more easily combine existing ideas in new and interesting ways. Or a prior idea may spark the recognition of a new idea. Existing ideas are the fertile soil from which young and tender ideas sprout and, if nurtured, grow into fully-formed ideas. If past ideas are protected or access to them is restricted, the “soil” is impoverished and not available for future growth.

Unlike the scarce resources of micro-economics, ideas can be shared, used and spread without diminishing their usefulness (quite the opposite). This is where our capitalist system can impoverish us with respect to the potential in our society. When ideas are artificially made scarce, it becomes costly to use those ideas to benefit others. One example seems to be AIDS medication in Africa, where companies who own patents want to protect their ability to profit rather than making drugs available to people who need them. This is their right, and the issue then becomes a competition between a person’s health and another person’s financial gain.

But the sharing of knowledge does not necessarily put an end to financial gain. Besides having an understanding of how to create the drugs, a group would require the ability to produce them. While we are developing new knowledge, we are also developing the ability to apply that knowledge in a useful way. Being able to apply knowledge is what sets us apart, and allows companies to profit, even when their intellectual property is no longer protected. Think, for example, of Apple, whose electronics are often imitated. Their brand is strong and respected, however, and they are extremely profitable even though their ideas (which they originate) are very difficult to protect from use by others.

The reason I write articles that are free for all to view and share is so that my ideas may respond to the ideas of others and so that my ideas may spark new ideas in others. In this way, I expect that we will all benefit as our collective thinking, about finance in this case, grows and strengthens.