Can Nakamoto Consensus Fix Intellectual Property Protection?
Intellectual property has always been a tricky subject. Balancing the organic sharing of ideas and information with the need for property protection seems difficult and almost contradictory. The good news is they can co-exist. We just aren't really doing it properly... yet.
Property Should Be Protected
Individuals who create value have a right and moral obligation (to themselves and their families) to earn from the value they provide to society. If I spend my life savings to build a fleet of cars, nobody would expect to get one for free. After all I would be losing a valuable piece of property. If this were compelled by law, it would still be theft in the most basic sense (see eminent domain abuse).
Protection of property is a core tenant to the principle of self ownership, and so it is one of the few rightful roles of governments. For those unfamiliar with this principle, this video does an excellent job of defining them.:
Bitcoin was very much created in the spirit of these principles. After all, we can now control our private keys directly, giving no opportunity for 3rd parties to garnish or freeze our funds. The key to this entire system depends on keeping private keys a carefully guarded secret. A string of undisclosed characters is all that ensures your coin is exclusive to you.
Ideas Are Different...
Ideas are not quite like other kinds of property. Humans are hard wired to empathize. We've always helped one another. It makes us feel good. One of the most universal ways we've always done this is by sharing information. We've passed down knowledge through cave drawings, campfire stories, songs, scrolls, and later books, blog posts, podcasts, and git repositories. We've come together in groups just like this website, voluntarily, to advance society's position as a whole, time and time again. Sharing ideas is not only fundamental to humanity, but it is responsible for improving mankind's state of well-being exponentially.
The Father of Invention
A man who understood the importance of balancing these principles better than almost anyone was the father of invention, Thomas Jefferson. He was responsible for codifying many of the fundamental protections we enjoy to this day and was an advocate for strong property rights. He had some interesting and almost fluid views when it came to intellectual property (they just called them ideas back in those days).
"If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it." - Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Isaac McPherson, Monticello, August 13, 1813
At first glance you may think Jefferson was anti-patent altogether, but actually, he was quite the advocate. Her understood the issue was nuanced. In the same letter, he also said:
Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them [ideas], as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody. Accordingly, it is a fact, as far as I am informed, that England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea.
So it seems Jefferson believed that society gets to decide which information (once made public) should be owned by who, and who should benefit from it. Interesting.
The patent system would see many revisions over the years, but these early ideas formed the basis for what is still in place today. The protections they granted proved important to the progress of a young nation. Jefferson would later say this about the patent system that had helped establish:
He certainly recognized that patents delivered a powerful encouragement to inventors, but his feeling that all should have total access to new technology was one of the reasons he never took out a patent on his own inventions.
Eventually, It all falls apart
While it was obvious that patents encouraged invention, in time it would become clear that the system could be exploited. Larger corporations were better equipped to protect the economic exclusivity of their creations. In some cases they went to great lengths to strip small inventors of their coveted "property" rights. A good example of both the importance of this protection, and the massive disadvantage it creates was depicted in movie called "Flash of Genius".
While it's true that granting "temporary monopolies", as Jefferson described, was probably responsible for encouraging a great many innovations, applying these protections to pure information poses new risks in a digital age. Risks that Jefferson might have taken greater care to protect against.
Faster, and Faster, and Faster
One major difference between physical property and information is that physical property does not replicate itself when it is "stolen". By today's pop definition, the "victim" does not lose the original item. Despite the commercials put out by the likes of the RIAA, the MPAA, and other copyright authorities, theft is just not defined that way. Add 3D printing to this and you've got a serious mess. Although Jefferson's focus was on patent and not copyright, he understood this concept too.
“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
As the digital age collided with the antiquated patent system, the economic impact grew exponentially, and started adding up for tech companies by the late 2000s. The idea called "software", in particular, went from being a non-issue to a beuqacratic nest of innovation crippling lawsuits.
For some more background on this subject check out this short documentary. Patent Absurdity: How Software Patents Broke the System
In recent years intellectual property suits have evaporated from the headlines due to non-agression pacts that have been made between companies after the futility of this situation had become expensively obvious. Some companies have even started a new wave of benevolence when it comes to their intellectual property. Pretty good trend... But can we do better?
Same Old Problem Dawg, Just a Different Century
Clay Shirky gave a really inspirational talk on this subject in 2012 that rings more true today than ever before. Yes its long but it's totally worth it ;)
It would seem we're left without a great solution. So the question becomes, how can we use new technologies to ensconce the essence of Jefferson's philosophy into the way we share our data with one another? We've learned that when we add central authorities and expect them to do what's best the system becomes so toxic that the individual companies ended up "solving" the problem among themselves by effectively paying to ignore the system entirely. This works for the big guys, but does little for the ones that can't afford this pay-to-play process, and it's Flash of Genius all over again. So how can we do this without requiring a complex legal structure and layers of centralized formality?
Enter the Blockchain
Blockchains are magical. They give society a new tool to achieve collaboration without coordination. A new way to argue as Shirky says. If Jefferson's idea that society must decide who should own what content is correct, there is no tool in existence better equipped to handle this task than Emergent Consensus.
The effect of an uncoordinated world agreeing on the ownership of a piece of arbitrary data will be profound, and could transform IP rights the way git has transformed software development, and then some.
Evicting 3rd parties from this process marks a major step toward achieving true self ownership, and it's what blockchains do exceptionally well. We could not shoehorn the internet into a printed book, and we can not shoehorn networks of emergent consensus into the relic of a system we have now. We have to think outside the box all over again. The writing is on the wall for a system whose time has come.
Extra content behind paywall:
- Who Owns the Bitcoin Name?
- A Rough Idea for the Future
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