Who owns ideas?

In my second real day of activity on this μOOC, things are hotting up. We asked to watch a video containing edits from presentations by two Law professors  Eben Moglem (Columbia University, also founder of the Software Freedom Law Center) and Lawrence Lessig (Harvard, founder of Creative Commons). These were harder to watch.

If you view Moglem’s transcript you will quickly get a taste for his style of delivery. Whilst agreeing with the sentiments of at least some of what he said, I found it hard to connect with him and his pencil-twirling antics. In his provocative delivery there is no room for doubt:

This of course is the beginning of the revolution. That is, the application of the word ‘theft’ to what previously had been known as ‘learning.’


So those of us who know the answer to the question are beginning to implement the necessary step. We are making it impossible to continue with the system of the ownership of ideas. We will be finished with that work within our lifetimes, and the system of ownership of ideas will have been relegated to that very important, but almost forgotten location, the dust heap of history.

Hmmm. He made a very interesting point about the impact of society deciding upon the need for ownership of ideas, and through the acts of distributors creating channels for revenue.  When, however, he was in full swing:

The law of Intellectual Property was the law of rights of distributors, who oppressed producers by the alienation of the production from those who made and used it. We reverse that process and eliminate the law of Intellectual Property by eliminating distributors.

We eliminate distributors, because the technology of human society at the beginning of the twenty first century makes distribution child’s play. And therefore, we ask children to be the distributors. And they succeed very well.

I began to disagree.  He talked of 21st century poets being able to publish their work (presumably on a blog) for nothing, but isn’t he being a bit naive here? Do blogs eliminate distributors, or just replace one with another? Aren’t we just replacing the explicit financial transactions associated with physical publishing with the hidden revenue of click-through adverts, surrendering more of our personal browsing habits and data as we go? How will the good poets eat? Not such an open and shut case.

The use of the word theft also chimes with my experiences discussing plagiarism with staff.  Acknowledgement of sources is surely the key here.

In some respects Lawrence Lessig’s posts were easier to watch, although the frequent references to US politics left me cold.

Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite.
Joseph de Maistre, 1811

He spoke of the need to protect a space for creativity through “fair-use” to promote an ecology of sharing, en route hitting out at big names in the media world such as Walt Disney and George Lucas. He stressed the need to respect the author (not the distributor) and felt that in the past obtaining explicit permission to re-use the work of others was often to difficult. That I presume is one of the reasons he created the Creative Commons.

I liked the fact that he recognised the role of community in this process. The challenge is to nurture this, beginning in our educational institutions…

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/juxtaposeesopatxuj/5464197666/


One thought on “Who owns ideas?”

  1. Following on from this, there were some very interesting discussions about whether you should use the CC-NC option in this article: http://freedomdefined.org/Licenses/NC. I must confess I have been tempted to use this in the past, but I don’t think it’s a condition I’ll require again.
    I particularly liked this line:

    Prohibiting commercial use except by special permission, on the other hand, puts you on the fringes of the free content movement, where the beer is free, but the philosophy is shallow.

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