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Some readers noted after my previous post (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) that my website has a copyright sign (©) at the bottom of each page. So it seems that I’m protesting the existence of patents but I indicate that the protest itself (my article) is copyrighted. That would seem hypocritical. Would I allow anyone free access to copy the content of my website and the books that I have published, given that I’m advocating against the intellectual property? This post compares patents with copyrights.

Things Come From Ideas

Patents can exist only when ideas can exist prior to their individual instances. For example, the idea “table” exists even before a specific instance of the table exists. A philosophical materialist may deny that the idea “table” exists even before the individual tables exist, and would claim that ideas are only derived from material objects and therefore have no independent existence. That claim, however, would undermine the very notion that we can own ideas, because if an idea cannot even exist apart from the individual objects, then how could we own such a thing? Materialism would therefore naturally result in the conclusion that we can only own objects, not ideas.

With intellectual property, we have transcended materialism, and yet we aim to apply the rules of material ownership even to ideas. My claim is that this application is wrong.

While individual objects can be owned, we cannot own something that goes across many individual objects. An idea goes across many objects, which is similar to the pervasiveness of physical properties—e.g. mass. The ownership of ideas is impractical because if someone owns the idea “mass”, then every object that possesses mass would infringe the ownership. If such ownership were permitted, then the easiest way to get rich would be to define a property called “do-squat” with a formula—e.g. 3.25 * mass + 4.962 * temperature + √57 * speed—and since this formula can be computed on any perceivable material object, all objects would start infringing this new formula.

As comical as it sounds, the only way to avoid such a conclusion is to disband the ownership of all ideas. That disbanding does not undermine the ownership of the instances in which the idea can be measured or observed. In other words, the things that we can see, taste, touch, hear, and smell can be owned but the ideas from which these things are instantiated cannot be owned.

How Copyrights Differ from Patents

Copyrights involve works of art such as literature, music, movies, etc. The basic plot of a story in a movie—e.g. a man loves a woman, the woman dies, and the man remarries—can not be patented or copyrighted because it is abstract. As you fill in more and more details about the exact circumstances in which the story is presented, the story is nuanced by events, dialogues, appearances, and characters. This is a particular instance of the basic plot, in order to produce something that can be seen, tasted, heard, smelt, or touched. Such instances—precisely because they are instances and therefore individual objects—can be copyrighted. There is hence an important difference between a plot and a story—the plot is abstract and cannot be owned, but the story is contingent and can be owned.

In an earlier post, I highlighted how monetary value is not truly decided by supply and demand. I expressed this idea through some sentences and paragraphs, using English as a medium of expression, involving some specific examples—e.g. those involving the demand of bell-bottom vs. slim-fit trousers. I do not own the idea that real monetary value is not supply-and-demand—although I could be the first person to articulate it in recent times. However, I do own the specific expression or articulation of this idea in the blog post mentioned above. My copyright, therefore, extends to the expression of the idea and not to the idea itself. I would not infringe someone’s copyright, even if they had articulated this idea before me if only my English expression of this idea differs from their prior expression(s).

It is well-known, for example, that movies are often remade in different languages, without permission of the original authors, because they cannot be said to infringe the copyrights as the copyright only extends to the specific words, names, behaviors, etc. One would seek permission only when there is significant overlap between the remake and the original make in terms of expressions, and it can be proven that the remake “copied” instead of being “inspired” by the original work.

In essence, what can be measured by the senses—e.g. the sequence of words—can be copyrighted, but what can only be perceived by the mind—i.e. the message that this sequence of words produces—can not be. The demarcation between patents and copyrights lies at the boundary between the senses and the mind: patents try to own what’s in the mind, while copyrights cover what’s grasped by the senses. Copyrights are legitimate because they pertain to instances rather than to ideas. The ownership of a copyright is similar to that of the ownership of a particular car, table, or house.

Copyrights Can Be Relaxed

When I publish a blog, I am allowing everyone to copy the post in a specific sense—each reader’s computer downloads the copy into their browser. From the single instance of the post in my website’s server’s disk and memory, the post is copied to many disks and memories in each reader’s browser. In a sense, I have relaxed my copyright by allowing everyone to download the content.

But I haven’t rescinded my rights over this material because I can unpublish the post or publish it after modification. I retain the copyright precisely because I may have to modify the post, without having to request anyone else for permission to do so. If by putting a post in the public domain I actually rescinded my ownership of the post, and someone immediately claimed the post as their own work by keeping it private, then I would be unable to update the post without that person’s approval. In effect, for every word I change after publication, I would require a paper trail of approvals.

The © sign at the bottom of the page exists not because I own the ideas, but only their expressions. Furthermore, the fact that I own the expression, allows me to distribute it freely, as long as they point their browsers to my URL. Finally, the fact that they can copy content doesn’t make them the owner of the content whereby I have to seek their approval before modifying or updating the content in the future because I haven’t rescinded my rights over this content. I have to keep the © at the bottom of the page to indicate that I reserve the right to update these posts in the future.

I’m providing the content for free, without discarding my ownership of this content. In other cases—such as books—I provide the content for a price. After you read the content and acquire its ideas, I don’t control your use of these ideas—e.g. writing another blog or book in your own words. But I do have the right to prevent you from distributing further instances of my specific word expressions.

Copying Doesn’t Automatically Enable Redistribution

Copyright thus pertains to the specific expression of an idea—i.e. an instance—and not to the idea itself as a patent does. A patent would forbid you to ever use the idea without explicit permission. But copyright only prevents you from distributing copies of my expression. You can still share the posts on Facebook and other social media because you are not distributing but providing a link to it: those who click the link would be directed to the URL from where the post is distributed.

Instances of ideas can be copied as many times as needed by the copyright owner, but they cannot be copied by the consumer of this content because they are not the copyright owners. The owner of a song, therefore, can copy the song as many times, but the receivers of such individual copies are not entitled to further copying. This is because the copyright owner creates an instance of the idea, but the receiver of the copyrighted content is not entitled to creating further instantiation.

Copyrights Are Essential, But Patents Are Not

By asserting copyright, I’m not asserting ownership of ideas, even when I might have socialized new ideas. You are therefore free to use the ideas in whatever way you like. However, I must assert copyright in order to maintain the ability to update my specific expression of the idea in the future. If I do not assert the copyright, I (might) lose the ability to edit my posts, print them on paper, or convert them into an e-book for further distribution (in case someone else asserts such ownership).

My assertion of copyrights is quite like the assertion of ownership of physical property—e.g. house, car, table, etc. If I don’t assert this right, and someone claims the property, then I would need their permission to even use the property or modify it. Copyrights are therefore essential for me to keep using and distributing my content, and they don’t stifle free-market competition like patents because you can very well use the ideas herein and produce a much better-articulated post than mine. We can compete with each other by producing better and better articulations of ideas, rather than on preventing someone to use the idea itself because I just happened to articulate it first.