Owned Ideas are Different Ideas

When ideas are property, the ideas we have are different than when they are not. If we look for peer production to produce the same familiar novels, music, and films that arise from proprietary production, we are bound to be disappointed. Worse, we will be blind to the different qualities of works produced in the commons, and to the engagement, the community, and the self-development that take place there.

For ideas to be made into property, they must be transformed. Creative and intellectual works never stand alone: they are always interwoven with other ideas. Yet property must be bounded. We must determine what is part of the property, and what is not. When a novel is owned, we must disentangle it from other novels, stories, and ideas in order to be able to say which words are within the novel, and which are without it.

The enclosures of physical land in England illustrate how the bounding of property changes the thing. “Enclosure” is not just a figure of speech: the enclosure laws of the 18th and early 19th centuries required land owners to physically separate their land by building fences. Some could not afford the expense, and had to sell their property. Land ownership became concentrated; villages changed and disappeared. The land was physically different before and after enclosure. When a similar change took place in the Oklahoma territories, a Pueblo chief found himself lost in a landscape he knew. Enclosed land was not only managed differently, it was a different sort of land.

When ideas are not owned, they are slippery. They overlap and interpenetrate one another. Each contains parts of others. Stories share themes, characters, motifs; sometimes there are multiple conflicting versions of the same story. The interconnection of ideas spans time as well: ideas change as they are passed on; stories are retold, altered, added to.

When ideas are owned, their forms must be frozen. What had been amorphous ideas and culture become individual works. A story must be captured in a novel; a piece of music in a composition or a performance. One version or form is authoritative; others are secondary or simply not permitted.

We can predict that the ideas produced under these conditions will be different. We can predict, without ever seeing Microsoft Windows, that it will not be like Linux. In fact, such predictions are common – like claims that free and open source software1 is inherently more secure and more bug-free because it is open to examination by more people, or that software produced in the commons is merely imitative of that produced elsewhere.

But the differences go deeper than that. Even when we do have Linux on one hand and Windows on the other, how do we compare them? Which version of Linux should be compared? Microsoft takes years to release a new version of Windows; there is a new Linux every day. What is Linux anyway? Is it “Linux”, an operating system kernel, or “GNU/Linux”, an operating system with the software to make it useful?

We can anticipate, without ever reading Encyclopedia Britannica, that it will not be like Wikipedia. Some people praise Wikipedia for its scope and its ability to include up-to-the-minute information about the world; others criticize it for the anonymity, lack of authority or credentials of its authors, the constant change that allows an article to say one thing one minute, and something else the next. They all agree that Wikipedia and Britannica will always be different.

The products of the commons are not like the products of proprietary production. And when we try to find the “work” – the novel, the album, the film – we find it slippery, hard to name, hard to locate. If we try to pin it down, we will change it – and we will miss what else is happening.

Commons activity takes place in a community; the product itself may or may not be the most important thing. Participating, people express themselves, develop themselves, build relationships. The concept of a “work” is problematic, because it is always dynamic. It stops changing only when the community that sustains it drops away. When an open source project ceases to change, we call it abandoned, dead. If no-one edited Wikipedia, it would not be Wikipedia any more; the experience of reading Wikipedia is inseparable from the continuous process of its creation.

And so, if we go looking for novels, for songs or albums, for feature films in the commons, and expect to find the proprietary works we are familiar with, we will not find what we are looking for. If we judge the value of peer production by its ability to reproduce the past, we will find it wanting – we may even block it or ban it for violating the boundaries we place around proprietary works. If, on the other hand, we seek out the commons for what it is, not what it is not, we will find people talking to people, expressing themselves, developing their abilities. Yes, we will find works, though they may not be like the works we are familiar with. But we may find, finally, that what we do in the commons is just as important as what we produce.

Notes

1 The term “open source” refers specifically to the peer production of software, while “free software” encompasses the moral implications of openness and freedom. However, I use the term “open source” here and elsewhere, even though I implicitly argue for the freedom of free software, because it is concise while lacking the ambiguity of “free software”, and because my argument applies to it even when consciousness of the moral dimension is lacking.

2007-03-15

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