We tend to think of intellectual property law as targeted mostly at big ideas with big market value.  But for every big idea there are zillions of little ideas whose value adds up to more.  Little ideas are little because they are either self-contained and make marginal contributions or they are small steppingstones, to be combined with other little ideas, which eventually are worth a lot.

It’s now cheap to spread little ideas.  Whereas before even very small communication costs made most of them prohibitively expensive to share.  In some cases this is good, but in some cases it can be bad.

When it comes to the nuts and bolts kinds of ideas, like say how to use perl to collect data on the most popular twitter clients, ease of dissemination is good and intellectual property is bad.  IP protection would mean that the suppliers of these ideas would withold lots of them in order to profit from the remainder.  Without IP protection there is no economic incentive to keep them to yourself and the infinitessimal cost of sharing them is swamped by even the tiniest pride/warm glow motives.

Now the usual argument in favor of IP protection is that it provides an economic incentive for generating these ideas.  But we are talking about ideas that don’t come from research in the active sense of that word.  They are the byproduct of doing work.  When its cheap to share these ideas, IP protection gets in the way.

The exact same argument applies to many medium-sized ideas as well.  And music.

But there are ideas that are pure ideas.  They have no value whatsoever except as ideas.  For example, a story.  Or basic research.  The value of a pure idea is that it can change minds.  Ideas are most effective at changing minds when they arrive with a splash and generate coordinated attention.  If some semblance of the idea existed in print already, then even a very good elaboration will not make a splash.  “That’s been said/done before.”

Its too easy now to spread 1/nth-baked little ideas.  Before, when communication costs were high it took investment in polishing and marketing to bring the idea to light.  So ideas arrived slowly enough for coordinated attention, and big enough to attract it.  Now, there will soon be no new ideas.

Blogs will interfere with basic research, especially in the social sciences.

When it comes to ideas, here’s one way to think about IP and incentives to innovate.  It’s true that any single individual needs extra incentive to spend his time actively trying to figure something out.  That’s hard and it takes time.  But, given the number of people in the world, 99.999% of the ideas that would be generated by active research would almost certainly just passively occur to at least one individual.

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