Thursday, August 06, 2009

Intellectual Property: Thoughts about Property and Profit

Have you ever thought about the way we attach an economic value to just about everything and then scheme and fight and maneuver to get more of whatever it is? We become downright obsessed with having things and defending our right to do as we wish with what is ours. The value of things is determined by how badly other people want them. The value of things goes up and down according to demand. Land, food, water, oil, energy, precious metals, "collectables", antiques - they are all bought and sold and we have developed elaborate legal systems to protect all of these things from thieves and to make sure that transactions are done properly, or at least legally. Well - that's the idea, anyway, wars and invasions and our treatment of First Nations peoples aside.

But there are things that it's a little more difficult to establish clear "ownership". Intellectual property, for example. Who "owns" ideas? Every now and again we hear about a legal battle where one artist - a songwriter, a writer, a comedian - claims that someone else has "stolen" their idea. There are very strict penalties for students who use someone else's ideas or words without giving proper credit - it's called plagiarism and it can be grounds for expulsion. I love ideas and I'm passionate about the pursuit of understanding and truth. I wonder - have I ever had a truly "new" idea? Have I ever thought anything that hasn't been thought before?

I love to read books of all kinds but I confess that I especially like to read books by authors who's thinking is consistent with mine. But it's humbling - and exhilarating - to realize that some of my favorite authors have written extensively on ideas that I've arrived at after much intense "thought". Whatever the topic or the particulars, they have arrived at the same intersection of idea fragments. Like travelers in a desert who come across a well, we - thinkers from across the ages - arrive at the same insight even though our path to that insight has traversed through different ages and cultural contexts. There is nothing new under the sun!

The pursuit of truth and of understanding is perhaps something that we should pursue corporately and collaboratively, rather than competitively and as individuals. Maybe if we were less concerned about making a name for ourselves, or using our ideas as a means of securing our own financial security, we would discover a deeper sense of elation - one that can't be measured by dollars and cents - when ideas hit the mark. I wonder if God finds it amusing that we go to such lengths to stake our claim to ideas that have some market value. Or does he find it sadly pathetic when we're more concerned with getting credit or making money than we are with sharing and helping and building and discovering for the sheer joy of it.

I love to think. I love those moments when I gain a glimmer of understanding that's new for me. But I am realistic enough to know that I haven't had a single "original" idea. Every idea is a moment in time when bits and pieces - fragments - of the ideas of other people come together in some coherent form in my mind and join with other ideas and fragments of ideas. It's a bit like a kaleidoscope - those tubes that turn and provide endless configurations with the same bits of color. None of the ideas are "mine". They don't "belong" to me. I have a moral obligation - it seems to me - not to hold onto ideas and try to extract all value from them, but to "catch and release" - to appreciate insights as they come and to give them back from whence they came.

Maybe if humanity's most clever minds were content with the intangible benefits of thinking and were willing to work with other clever minds, we would gradually see understanding, not through the grid of the market economy, but through the grid of truth, the realization of which IS the pearl of great price.

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