If You Believe in IP, How Do You Teach Others?

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The professors have cracked down. It might have been enough to legislate against this behavior in particular. Instead, they wrapped their objection in the great fallacy of our age: the professor owns his ideas and they may not be spread without his permission.

This action has opened up a can of worms, and now other universities have taken up the puzzling question: how do you at once enforce intellectual property and uphold the ideal of a university, which is, after all, about teaching and spreading ideas to others?

The problem is a serious one that highlights the absurdity of the notion that an idea — infinitely reproducible and thereby not scarce, and also taught with the overt purpose of gaining adherents among students — can be somehow contained and restrained once it is unleashed. The only way to retain exclusive possession of an idea is never to share it with anyone. But of course that not only cuts against the grain of teaching; it is contrary to the human impulse for bouncing ideas off others and still claiming some credit for innovation.

There are two possible ways out of this problem in a digital age: open source or IP. The open-source model has been adopted by MIT, on the one hand, which has made its entire curriculum open source and freely available online. This is a fairly straightforward approach, which finally gets down to the reality that what MIT is charging for is not so much the education but the degree itself. Clarity at last.

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Another approach is the one taken by Harvard and, most explicitly, by the University of Texas, which has suggested that professors make the following contract with students:

My lectures are protected by state common law and federal copyright law. They are my own original expression and I record them at the same time that I deliver them in order to secure protection. Whereas you are authorized to take notes in class thereby creating a derivative work from my lecture, the authorization extends only to making one set of notes for your own personal use and no other use. You are not authorized to record my lectures, to provide your notes to anyone else or to make any commercial use of them without express prior permission from me.

You can make "no other use" of what you learn? Really? That sort of smashes the whole point of education, doesn’t it?

The goal of the university is to spread knowledge, not to grant a one-time use for what you learn in the classroom. The aim of an individual student is to gain knowledge that is used in every possible way for a lifetime — and to pass the ideas on to others.

In fact, what the contract requires is impossible. It is not as if our bodies are equipped with hard drives that can be wiped clean after the semester is over. In any case, even if we were so equipped, that would defeat the whole point of taking classes and paying universities for offering them.

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I don’t find this struggle ridiculous in the slightest. Once you posit the ownership of ideas already made public, this problem becomes inevitable. Of course the institution of teaching has been around since the ancient world, and yet this issue has never really presented itself before. But since the publishing mercantilists first asserted that property rights could be applied to ideas, the problem of what to do about teaching has been waiting in the wings. The advent of digital media forces the issue, because ideas, once stated, can spread globally in an instant.

I’m further struck by this problem in light of a fantastic new book on Ayn Rand called Goddess of the Market, by Jennifer Burns. The author isn’t quite zeroed in on this issue as such, but she provides enough information to document the fact that for Rand the issue of her intellectual property became increasingly important throughout her life. She documents how Rand’s royalties from her work Night of January 16th gave her the first taste of financial independence, and how she later came to believe that she had not received enough. With each successive negotiation for book royalties and film rights, her terms became ever higher and ever more strict.

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

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