IP and abundance


Some things have always been abundant, and some things have been abundant from time to time. Think about fresh air and water, or grazing land in the early part of white settlement of North America. Economics, however, can be defined in terms of managing scarcity.

Abundance makes economists nervous. There’s a feeling that people might lose motivation, lay back and enjoy life. In the Pacific they ask why Europeans go so fast.

There’s no hurry. If you wait, the coconut will fall off the tree.

It all feels vaguely immoral. Some hind-brain conflict between a Protestant work ethic and a need to earn one’s possessions in order to truly own them. Abundance is inherently anti-capitalist, at the very least. It’s hard to make a profit out of something unless you can use the law to create an artificial shortage. The natural law of abundance is that everyone has a right to it and the only crime is restricting access. This applies even when some “utility charge” is actually necessary. Try charging people for the air they breathe. Try overcharging for clean water – it’s a recipe for revolution, as Bechtel discovered in Bolivia.

Current affairs information has been so plentiful that it’s priced by nominal utility charge. Think of free to air television and a few coins for a newspaper. This is taken for granted to such an extent that it’s not mentioned in civics classes, but it is one of the foundation stones of modern democracy.

Ideas have throughout most of history also been free or nearly so. The first person to set up a restaurant, democracy, or postal service did not try to licence these concepts to anyone else who did the same. Both copyright and patents are recent. They should really be laughable, except that no one’s laughing. Using someone else’s idea is not stealing in the normal sense, because it doesn’t take it away from the other person, even though it might decrease the inventor’s ability to make a profit from his idea.

Intellectual property legislation represents the choice at a crossroads. We can try to find ways to operate in a world of abundance, by limiting or decreasing the power of IP. Some means of making profit out of ideas will be impossible, and much of the baggage of capitalism, from advertising to accountancy may be unnecessary. Open source software and the thousands of bands on MySpace have shown the power, creativity, and freedom which lies down this road. Alternatively we can lock up IP, regulate the internet, create rights for the broadcaster of a work and not just the author and performer. This is more like the world we know, and it favours the big corporations over the individual. It may be essential for some kinds of invention and research. The downside is exemplified by millions of AIDs victims in Africa who cannot afford treatment.

To me the choice is clear. The economics of scarcity should be reserved for the things which truly are scarce: land to grow food, minerals, manufactured goods. Wherever it is possible we should adopt the generosity, freedom, and choice offered by abundance. With time, as technology and humanity advance, we may find the ability to offer more things in abundance which were once scarce.

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