Intellectual Property: Memetics vs. Economics
Naval Ravikant says that the modern forms of leverage are in code and media, leverage meaning technology that exaggerates the consequences of your actions.
Both code and media are extensions of language, which is the communication of ideas. Code is language understood by computers. Media is language understood by humans. Essentially, the claim is that modern wealth comes from becoming a master of language.
The key attribute of this type of product is zero marginal cost of reproduction: all or nearly all of the work that goes into a product happens at the beginning. Then, you sell as many copies as the market demands. The upfront investment is finite and the return is theoretically infinite.
This type of product falls under intellectual property rights. These rights are meant to protect those who discover new ideas and grant them a partial monopoly on the economic value they produce. Given how powerful ideas are, understanding how their ownership works is critical to creating wealth for society in the modern age.
What are the philosophical, legal, and economic principles behind intellectual property?
To understand intellectual property and its modern day significance, you must understand:
- Intellectual Property
- Fair Use Exemption
- The Creator Economy
- Non-Fungible Tokens
Using our minds, humans experience life and can divide up reality into parts. We call these theoretical categories ideas. This method of categorization helps us understand cause and effect relationships, making our actions more effective in achieving our desires.
I don’t understand how we can do this or how human mind differs from animals but my suspicion is that it has something to do with the ability to compress memories, only saving the parts of the memory that connote patterns of deep truths.
Property rights exist to give an individual or organization monopolistic privileges to alter a piece of reality. It exists only as a social custom. Without the enforcement of property rights, they don’t exist. At its core, it is a collective agreement to divide up the world, assign its pieces to human owners, and let others act as they see fit with their possessions.
IP rights apply general property rights to ideas. They give the articulator of an idea exclusive privileges over all physical manifestations that reasonably match the original articulation.
IP rights do not mean that the owner is the only one who can have a specific idea, rather they mean that someone else cannot imprint the owner’s idea onto something in the material world and distribute it. JK Rowling doesn’t have exclusive access to the idea of Harry Potter. If you have read the books, the story is in your mind as well. But you cannot photocopy your book and give it to someone. JK Rowling is the only one that can share the idea of Harry Potter by printing it into books.
IP rights are more vulnerable to infringement than “material” property rights because of the self-replicating nature of an idea, making its physical manifestations difficult to trace and enforce. This means that IP rights rely more heavily on law enforcement. A person could in theory physically defend one material object they own but preventing people from seeing your design, copying it, and distributing it privately is practically impossible.
Fair Use Exemption
A noteworthy detail in copyright law is the fair use exemption. If a creator needs to use a specific copyrighted work in order to tell the story they are telling, then they can use it without paying or even informing the original creator. If it is a narrative necessity, you can surpass typical copyright restrictions.
This is a legal grey area but has worked in some cases. For example, Canadian director Matt Johnson has become known for taking advantage of fair use exemptions in copyright law, leading to his show Nirvanna The Band The Show featuring the Star Wars soundtrack, actual footage from Star Wars, footage from video games, John Cena’s entrance song, and countless stylistic parodies of pop culture artifacts. They did this legally without permission and without paying anything to the owners of the featured IP.
Memetics is a field of study that applies the principles of Darwinian evolution to abstract ideas.
Memetics suggests that the value of an idea is measured by how many conscious entities it resides in. In this sense, the idea does not want intellectual property law; ideas wish to be free. The idea wants the least amount of restrictions and exclusion on the copying of it.
Intellectual property rights are to ideas what traditional marriage is to humans — it restricts procreation based on social rules.
The Creator Economy
Economically, a free idea is of little utility to the creator. If you spread your ideas for free, where do you get money to live? Who gives it to you?
Early content creators on the internet monetized through advertising. While profitable, understand that this makes the creator a tool for the memetic will of another person or organization. You are paid to spread ideas that are not your own. Instead, they are the ideas of a company that wishes for a viewer to be possessed to purchase something. If the “free” content has advertising, you are paying for it. Otherwise, the advertiser wouldn’t pay for you to see it.
A business creates an artificial cause and effect relationship with reality — the causal trigger being the business getting paid a specific amount of money from a customer. Advertising injects statements into an individual such that their decision-making process, which regulates their actions, is in favour of the business’s cause and effect mechanism.
Memetically, ideas are much more viral when IP rights and monetization are pushed to the side. Think of music discovery platforms that held reign recently: Soundcloud, Pandora, Vine, TikTok. These platforms grew in popularity through blatant copyright infringement that wasn’t enforced. The best ideas will propagate where collaboration is permissionless. Soundcloud artists could make unofficial remixes of copyrighted songs; TikTok creators make videos paired with copyrighted songs. This is illegal. Under typical conditions, you cannot publish anything that contains someone’s music without their permission, regardless of whether your content is monetized or not.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) use a decentralized database to track the relationship between a digital identity and a piece of media. It is a digital certificate of authenticity with one product and only one owner at a time.
One argument in favour of NFTs is that they allow a piece of media to be openly available for permissionless collaboration while still being monetized. If the artist makes enough money on the original NFT (which appreciates in value as people make derivative works, like citations in academia), it will be less disruptive for another creator to remix their work without asking for permission first.
We know that property is a rights relationship between person and object that lets the person have exclusive control over the object in some way. NFTs are digtial property. Websites can decide what special privileges NFT owners get for that piece of media, for example special profile pictures on Twitter.
NFTs allow different websites to experiment with unique privileges given to IP owners. This may help society figure out what the appropriate privileges owners of an idea should be afforded. Perhaps the answer is none.
Intellectual property laws in their current form are outdated and unenforced against individuals. This will not work if we continue the transition to knowledge work (economic activity that produces exclusively intellectual property). If this problem is not solved, paid creative work will be reserved for those who can redirect attention to purchases of material goods. Society will pay no matter what.
How can permissionless collaboration spread ideas while allowing digital artists to participate in the economy and earn a living?