What's Your Attitude on IP?

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(Before I go on, I want to emphatically point to my personal debt to Michele Boldrin and David Levine’s Against Intellectual Monopoly, from which everything in this article is derived.)

In the German-speaking world of art in the 18th and 19th century, imitation by composers was considered to be the greatest tribute. When Bach would write an elaboration of Buxtehude, it was seen as a wonderful gift to Buxtehude’s legacy and memory. When Mahler would turn a phrase by Brahms, or re-orchestrate a Beethoven symphony, it was the tribute of one master to another. So it is in literature and economics.

Imitation in economic affairs is essential for development, since nothing is ever perfect right out of the box, and society is constantly changing. You need that imitative dynamism in order for technology to keep up with changing market conditions. This is what IP shuts down in the name of rewarding creators. How can creators make a buck in a world of fluid imitation? The same way they always have: by having the best product at the right price to the market first. When others imitate them, they have to hustle again and innovate some more. This is how societies and economies grow.

Think of the fashion world, in which IP doesn’t apply. It is fast moving, innovative, and remarkably profitable. Designers have their ideas imitated nearly as soon as they are seen on the runway. This imitative behavior is widely regarded as a ratification of a good idea. It is something that people are socialized to look for as an indication of marketability. It is the same with generic drugs, fonts, perfume and other sectors in which there is no IP.

Sadly, in sectors in which IP do apply, the opposite attitude applies. Authors, artists, and inventors sit and brood about the need to keep their wares to themselves, and hunt out anyone who would dare “steal” their idea. In the successful cases, they can end up rewarding themselves but at the expense of social development.

In the far more prevalent unsuccessful cases, the obsession with being ripped off leads to brooding, resentment, and disgruntlement that the world has failed to provide them a living. A sector consisting of nothing but people like this — with an attitude encouraged in law — is stagnant. By way of illustration, compare the imitation-oriented jazz and rock sectors with the IP-obsessed area of serious classical music!

Other sectors like advertising fall somewhere in between. Several years ago, Apple ran a commercial for the iPod that looked incredibly similar to one produced by Lugz shoes. Now, one might laugh and appreciate this — surely it will benefit both companies — or one can regard it as theft. Instead of celebrating a success, Lugz regarded it as a rip-off, which Apple denied. Words flew between the companies, along with threats of litigation, along with cease and desist orders. Full story here and here.

This is really just pathetic and completely unnecessary.

It really all comes down to the attitude one takes toward one’s influence on others. The absence of IP creates a broad mindedness that seeks to make a difference in the world and looks for imitators as a sign that it is working. The presence of IP subsidizes a kind of inwardness and bitterness that sees the whole world as populated by potential thieves to keep at bay.

You see the two ways of looking at the world in the way kids interact with each other. I’m speaking of pre-teens and the way they deal with their emergent societies. Let’s say one kid has developed a certain phrase or gesture that is new to the social group. Another kid picks up on it and employs it.

Now, there are two ways to respond to this imitation. The innovator child can see others doing and saying what he did and said and realize that he has made a difference in the world, put a dent in this little universe. He has become a force for changing the world as he knows it. He has made his mark, and the evidence is how others are doing the same thing. He feels a sense of pride and joy and works to coming up with other unique ways of dressing, speaking, or behaving that others similarly imitate.

Or the child can have another response. He can accuse his imitators of stealing his words, ripping off his gestures, pilfering his personality, and plundering his special way. He sees others who imitate as threats, forces that are reducing the value of his unique personality. He treats it as the equivalent of cheating on a test. It is taking what is his. It is the first stages of a very destruction IP-style mentality.

Parents: be alert to signs of this among kids. Explain to children that it is a good thing when others are influenced by you. It means that you have made a difference in the world. It is not something to complain about at all. It is something to celebrate. It means that you are an entrepreneur on the cutting edge, someone who does things that succeed in society. That also comes with responsibilities to do good things and improve the look and feel of the world around them.

Which attitude do you take toward emulation? Before you answer, consider that emulation is unavoidable. There is no such thing as absolute originality. Everything in a growing and health society is an elaboration on something else that already exists. This applies to technology, literature, music, art, language — everything. A world in which the ethics of IP applied would be backward and stagnant, headed nowhere but backward.

Children’s movies cut both ways. The movie called Ratatouille strikes me as the ultimate IP-supporting propaganda. A rat with a gift for taste and smell is rescued from the gutter and put in a position to cook food at a fine restaurant. All great. He has imitators all over the place but he alone remains the best. But then he begins to seethe with resentment that he alone is not given credit and accolades. Oddly, some people fear that customers will not like the idea that a rat is cooking all the food! The movie ends with his being discovered and he feels great pride, and we are supposed to be happy about this. The restaurant is destroyed, but the audience is supposed to figure that it is worth it.

A much better case is Horton Hears a Who. Throughout it, we see competitive pressure between the various animals to see which one will have the dominant influence over others. The Kangaroo tries to prevent Horton from influencing people but he does anyway, and eventually everyone comes around. We see it too in the lovely operation of Whoville, a place where emulation is king, and it is a vibrant and lovely society in which everyone is happy.

As web editor of Mises.org, hardly a week goes by when I don’t see imitators of our successful web presence. It can be images, articles, design, feel, structure — everything. Some years back I had the view that this had to be stopped. Fortunately, no one here had time to bother with it. Thank goodness. The whole reason we exist is to influence the world. Evidence of that is glorious, and it keeps the fire under our staff to keep doing a better job and stay on the cutting edge.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org.

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