Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Intellectual property and scarcity, part 2

(If you're too bored to read the whole post, skip to the summary at the bottom.)

In the first part I have briefly outlined Stephan Kinsella's argument against intellectual property (IP) that is very popular in libertarian circles. To recap, Kinsella states that property rights exist to resolve conflicts over scarce resources. Because information is not scarce (my use of an idea does not conflict with/prevent your use of the same idea), property rights do not apply to information; in fact, they create a conflict rather than resolve one.

I said that I would outline possible objections to Kinsella's approach in the next post. It will probably take at least two posts. First, let's list the two possible metaphysical theories of information:

1. Information is a bunch of platonic objects
2. Information is patterns of matter isomorphic to other patterns of matter (I will explain below what this means)

A platonic object is a hypothetical ideal object ("ideal" as in "idea", not in "perfect") existing either in a parallel realm or as a part of our reality. Whenever we access some information through a piece of matter, we are actually observing that object, either in its "pure" form, or somehow distorted. So, if a few mushrooms are arranged in a circle, there is a platonic circle which somehow communicates with the matter of the mushroom resulting in their arrangement in an approximation of the said circle.

Likewise, the idea of Middle Earth is a platonic object (either created or discovered by J.R.R. Tolkien). Every time someone reads The Lord of the Rings, he accesses the Middle Earth platonic object. Likewise if he writes a novel set in the Middle Earth.

The assumption that information is non-scarce (that Kinsella and other libertarians make in their anti-IP analyses) alludes to the concept of platonic objects. Each such platonic object is non-scarce in the sense that both I and Tolkien can use Middle Earth to write a separate book (after Middle Earth has been created/discovered). Supporters of IP claim that Middle Earth can be owned by Tolkien estate. Critics of IP claim that Middle Earth cannot be owned by anyone, since nobody may exclude someone else from accessing Middle Earth, precisely because it is a non-scarce object, and one person's use of it does not conflict with another person's use. In other words, a rule that would allow such an exclusion would be both immoral and illegal in the sense that it would go against the moral/legal purpose of property rights: to prevent conflicts over scarce resources.

* * *
Here is the first part of my critique:

Kinsella's argument is based on the acceptance of the doctrine of platonic objects. But why should one do that? Why not assume the alternative hypothesis: that information is not platonic objects but merely patterns in matter not separable from matter itself? Or, if you wish, information is a series of patterns isomorphic to another series of patterns. "Isomorphic" here means "corresponding" in such a way that someone can use set of patterns A to recreate or analyze set of patterns B. For example, sequence of nucleotides on DNA is isomorphic to a sequence of amino-acids in a protein. Note that this doesn't have anything to do with human brain; cells use DNA code to create proteins all the time.

This argument is much more straightforward in that it does not require assumption of religious-like concepts like Platonic objects. If someone believes in platonic objects, let him bring forth evidence of their existence. (I will deal with a religious assumption that platonic objects exist in the next post.) Likewise, if he believes that we live in a Matrix, and all information we have is owned by some Matrix machine, let him also bring forth that evidence. Prima facie, it seems that information is nothing but patterns of matter that can either be recognized by our brains (by creating a set of isomorphic patterns in them) or not.

(The burden-of-proof argument is significant, by the way. If someone believes that platonic objects exist, he must formulate exactly what they are and how he knows about them. It may still turn out, from his evidence, that they cannot be property. For instance, if platonic objects exist in a non-material world, created by G-d, then who says they are our property? They are G-d's property. To be sure, so are all the objects in the material world, but G-d granted people rights of ownership because of the scarce/rivalrous nature of the objects. My point is: we can't willy-nilly state some theory without looking at its context.)

* * *

Significantly, this means that information is scarce. Only one person can read a given piece of information in a given book. Or, at least, it is as scarce as the carrier of the given instance of information. And someone certainly can own information -- by owning its carrier. If I bought a book from you, I now own the ideas in the book: the specific patterns of ink that create isomorphic patterns in my brain. You don't own them, because you don't own the book (since I bought it from you).

Can I use these patterns to create new patterns? (Either by copying the book or by using its fantasy-land setting to write my own book.) Why not? I am using my property the whole time. The book and information within it is my property. The new book that I am writing is also my property: I am using my paper and ink (presumably). I can sell it to anyone I want, since it's my property.

So, this analysis still argues against IP. And to me it seems like a much more straightforward approach that does not require the mental gymnastics of scarcity and justification for property rights. (Which I will deal with in the next post.) It's not clear to me why Kinsella, who is an atheist (and writing mostly for an atheist crowd) does not use it.
* * *
One can probably also criticize the platonic model as somewhat vague and incoherent. Imagine I re-write The Hobbit, replacing each instance of "Bilbo" with "Shmilbo". Is my Shmobbit the same ideal object as Tolkien's Hobbit? What if I write a novel (as has been done) from the point of view of Orcs: in which the latter and Sauron are actually misunderstood fighters for freedom against the oppression of the West? What if I write a novel whose fantasy-land setting has Misty Mountains, but nothing else from the Middle Earth? How about the Misty Mountains and a forest called Lothlórien? What if in my novel, the plot is very similar to Tolkien's (someone goes somewhere to destroy some object of power), but doesn't use the same details?

You can perform this kind of mental experiments to see that the concept of platonic objects is too vague to be used successfully as a set of rules for allocation of property. But this analysis also demonstrates that even if the universe of platonic objects existed, its anatomy would be so vague and alien to our mind that it would be difficult to determine who owns what and to what extent. It would be like owning land whose borders sometimes expand and sometimes contract.

In the next post I will try to analyze what would happen if we were to overcome the problems of figuring out what exactly platonic projects are and if we had some source (e.g., a religious revelation) that told us that all information is actually a bunch of platonic objects.

* * *

To summarize:

In the first version of critique of Kinsella's anti-IP argument, I am stating that a much easier argument would be to ask: what exactly are we owning? What is that object? Where is it?

If we discover that there is no such thing as platonic ideal objects (or their existence is subject to burden of proof), then we have to identify information with its material carriers. I cannot own contents of something without owning also its carrier. The contents of something are merely the properties of that thing.

The fact that my key fits my lock is my key's property. The unique pattern of the key's molecules is mine as long as I own the key, because it is the key. (Sure enough, another pattern on another key is that key and belong to whomever owns the key. Even if it is "the same" pattern, in the sense that it can fit the same lock or can be recognized as the same by a human brain.)

Some people may be against this attempt of "isolating" where and what objects are. But I disagree. Perhaps as a scientist, I find it important to understand the nature and ontology of some phenomenon before we deal with it.

The same goes, for example, for numbers, rights, values, tastes, truths, etc. We must identify what they are exactly before we are to deal with them.

1 comment:

Scott Trinh said...

First of all, how random to stumble upon a fellow market anarchist's blog by searching for "Anglo-Saxon map"... Blind luck?!

I don't see Kinsella's argument needing Platonic ideals. It seems perfectly coherent to say that the realm of ideas, abstracts and concepts is a realm of non-scarcity without thinking that each idea need exist in some platonic sense. I think it is precisely the point that he is making that ideas are not like "things" and therefore do not have a scarce existence. My understanding of Plato is that every concept is a thing, somewhere. To me, Plato is almost entirely incomprehensible about his Forms.

I think your argument is also valid, and is similar to my understanding of Roderick Long's objections to IP. Long attacks IP from many angles and even talks a fair amount about Tolkien!

Glad I found you and look forward to more posts!