Intellectual Property

I’ve been thinking a lot about intellectual property- if you create something new and exciting, and have a vested interest in seeing this idea succeed and propagate, what should you do?  In this world of new media, of share and share alike, where do you draw the boundaries around what’s “yours” and what belongs to everyone?

If you go back to basic economics, many things are considered valuable based on simple supply and demand. When something is scarce, f the demand is high, the price will be high(er) as well. When something is abundant, if demand is low, the price goes down; if demand is high, but does not outstrip supply, the price will remain fairly level. Just look at the Nintendo Wii. Demand for these game units far outstripped supply, and the lucky few who got units could have made a killing in the secondary market on ebay. They’re still in short supply, but it’s finally much more routine that someone pays retail rather than premium prices to get their hands on one. (And yes, we have one, and they are totally worth the fuss, but that’s a post for a different day.)

So how does supply and demand figure into cyberspace? Seth Godin posed the question in “Small Is The New Big” about what would we do if bandwidth were free? What would we do if the cost of doing business were free? And I think we are approaching the time when entry into any business online is getting cheap enough that it is approaching free. So that means the hurdles to enter cyberspace and the cyber-economy are minimal, almost negligible, and will continue to shrink in size.

This means we can communicate ideas across time and space like never before, in written, audio and visual formats. The limitations on our ideas and creativity have always been boundless, but the ability to share them with others has expanded tremendously, to the point of becoming boundless as well. So, now what? If you have an idea, and you put it on public display on the internet, how long is it really yours and yours alone?

Lots of people have ideas. Lots of people even have great ideas, but ultimately, you need to be able to execute on these thoughts and notions.  The rubber has to meet the road.  The dream needs to become a reality.  And frequently, those with the good ideas and those that can implement them are not one and the same.  We need to blend the thinkers and the doers together to move things forward.  After all, executing on ideas can be hard.  It can be time consuming and costly.  The great idea doesn’t necessarily hit the person best suited to transform it from a thought into an action.

But what happens if ideas are abundant, and it is the execution that is in short supply?  I would argue this is the case right now.  There are lots of great ideas, but a limited amount of human and financial capital to bring many of them into fruition.  And part of the problem with the instantaneous communication of ideas is that they now spread, not only exponentially, but logarithmically as well.  They spread by orders of magnitude, more quickly than ever before, much like a drop of food coloring into a glass of water.  The color spreads slowly, but in no time, all the water is “infected” with the color, and is no longer clear as before.

It’s also harder to predict which ideas will spread like a drop of food coloring in water,  like a virus, and which ones will not.  But it’s clear that if you want to profit personally from sharing your ideas, you have to find a way to contain them.  This means regulating both the supply of the idea, and perhaps maintaining some quality control over the ultimate product.  This is not easy.

How can you maintain standards of excellence, of responsibility, of community, as an idea spreads?  A friend told me a tale recently about one person in a community making a mistake with a sponsor, and as a result, that sponsor is totally turned off and will never engage with the community as a whole again, just because of one person’s mistake.  This seems both tragic and short sighted on the part of the sponsor, but it also goes to show that we do have responsibility to each other to behave like grownups.  As much as the internet breeds a certain amount of freedom and anonymity, I think it ultimately makes us accountable for everything we do or have ever done, in ways we’ve been able to avoid in the past.   Your reputation is now your currency, but it is much more fragile than ever before, because you exercise much less control over what is said about you, or how people see you than ever before.

I have no easy answers for how we protect our ideas, how we make them real, or how we maintain quality and responsibility as ideas leave our hands and undergo many changes, tweeks, refinements, and the like.  Do we risk micromanaging authenticity and gradually drain the blood out of it in the process?  Are we left with the seemingly  simple conclusion that you can only be true to yourself and your ideals? Yet don’t we carry some responsibility for the acts of others, especially as we put our ideas, our power into their hands?

I really want to know what you think.  How can we share ideas, yet maintain some level of original intent?  (Just look at the Constitution….)  How do we know what the founders meant, and how do those ideals apply in a world that is so radically different from theirs or anything we could have even imagined even a decade ago?  How do we adapt to new paradigms before they even solidify into something you can call a paradigm?

What comes next?

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