A problem of possession

This one’s for Oscar Berg, who this morning sent out the following Tweet:

My best ideas that I use at work are born outside of office hours. Who owns these ideas?

I commented on my reTweet that this was a “key fail of possession-economy”. It’s actually much more serious than a mere ‘fail’, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. First, some more follow-on Tweets from Oscar as he mused further on his experiences:

With social media people have tools that can serve as evidence that they got an idea outside of work before they used it at work

Here’s my idea: if my ideas are free & available for anyone to use, noone can own them -> I can use them as well for whatever purpose

Organizations are obsessed with owning ideas & knowledge

Enterprises should focus on becoming the best environments for ideas to be born, grow and successfully be brought to the market

RT @tdebaillon: “Claiming to own an idea is a political matter, a will to stay in control-and-command logic”

RT @EskoKilpi: “attribution is the new ownership” #ideas

This is indeed a question of ownership – and a highly political one at that, as Thierry de Baillon explains above. Perhaps the key point here is that there are two fundamentally different concepts of ownership: possession, and stewardship (the latter sometimes referred to, perhaps more usefully, as responsibility-based ownership).

Possession-based ownership is the key-stone of the entire Western-style economy – hence the old adage that ‘possession is nine-tenths of the law’. Somewhat bizarrely, English-derived law (as used in Britain, the US, Australia and presumably many other ex-members of the former British Empire) does not in fact support a concept of possession as such: property is actually defined somewhat back-to-front, in terms of the ‘right to exclude others’ from access to the respective item. Either way, it’s clear that such ‘property’ is considered to be a personal ‘right’. And since corporations are legally classed as ‘artificial persons’, they too have the same ‘rights’ to exclusion-based property.

The concept sort-of works with physical property. One of the key attributes of anything physical is that it is ‘alienable’: if I give it to you, I no longer have it. It’s also possible to build a trail of provenance by which exclusive-owner and each person or entity that added value to that object can be recorded, and – according to the nominal aims of the possession-economy – offered appropriate ‘compensation’ for that transfer of value and/or exclusive-possession. Yet if we follow the logic of this, and follow the trails of provenance all the way to the very far-end, what we almost invariably find is that a) the trail begins with a title-deed to some area of land, and b) the initial ‘owner’ of that land ‘took possession’ by the simple expedient of saying “it’s mine, it belongs to me, and to no-one else”. Often the ‘possession’ took place by enforced ‘dispossession’ of everyone else, by ‘right of conquest’ or whatever; sometimes (as in the case of Australia, for example) the expropriation was slightly more subtle; but in essence it comes down to one rather ugly word: theft. It perhaps may seem strange to consider that even an entire country could be the subject of a theft on a truly enormous scale: but we don’t have to tell the indigenous peoples of former colonies about that kind of theft – they know about it, they live with its consequences every single day…

There’s also the interesting phenomenon of anti-possession – the offloading of ‘the unwanted’ onto others. Pollution is perhaps the most obvious kind of anti-property, but there are many others, including the ‘export’ of undesirable living-conditions or undesirable social stress. In each case, though, it represents a kind of theft – if only a theft from peoples of the future, who are in effect being forced by our inaction in the present to have to deal with the consequences for us, whether or not they might wish to do so.

Possession is actually an avoidance of responsibility, an offloading of responsibility onto others without their engagement and consent – for which the technical term is abuse. Most so-called ‘rights’ can easily be misused as forms of other-abuse, and the ‘right’ of possession is actually a form of legally-enshrined abuse: the ‘right’ to avoid any negotiation about appropriacy or responsibility of use.

So no matter that possession of physical property seems ‘normal’ and ‘everyday’, a ‘common-sense’ way to managing a society’s physical resources, its actual foundation is theft, and its operational basis is societally-enforced abuse. When we go right down to the roots in this way, it becomes very obvious, very quickly, that there is no ethical defence for our current system for ownership of physical property. Which is, yes, kind of a problem… a big problem…

Yet it gets even worse as soon we move outside of the physical domain. So-called ‘intellectual property‘ not only suffers from every one single one of the failures of physical property, but also fails at almost every point where some excuse can be made to support physical-property.

Unlike physical-property, ideas and information are ‘non-alienable‘ – if I give it to you, I still have it. Attempting to apply exclusion (alienability) to non-physical property is ultimately all but guaranteed to fail, because it goes directly against the non-alienable nature of non-physical property (hence the phrase ‘information wants to be free’); the only way it can be made to work at all is by bundling the information with some kind of physical object (such as a book, a disk, a seat in a cinema). The alternate option – and apparently the preferred option for the media industries – is to try to force the virtual world to fit the rules of the physical world – hence the increasing absurdities of ‘digital rights management’ and the like, which again are ultimately guaranteed to fail, because they go directly against the nature of the ‘property’.

Worse, there is no possible way that a trail-of-provenance (the only way in which physical-property can be made to seem ‘fair’) can be established for ‘intellectual property’ and other non-physical property. For example, we have no idea where ideas ‘come from’: the most likely suggestion at present is that they arise from a combination of individual interpretation drawing from a vast untraceable web of information provided by others. We have no means to identify who should and should not be awarded ‘compensation’ – especially given the complication that many ideas will arise from people long-dead, via books and the like. On top of that, in his work on dialogue in the sciences, physicist David Bohm demonstrated that all knowledge is essentially social in nature, and cannot ethically be assigned any one individual as their ‘exclusive possession’.

There’s a lot more that could be said here about the patent-system and the like, but the short version is that there is no functional or ethical basis for any form of ‘intellectual property’ based on exclusive-possession:  in foundational terms, all variants of possession-based ‘intellectual property’ represent some form of expropriation, dispossession or theft.

Much the same applies to the two other core dimensions of ‘property’ – relational and aspirational. Relational-property exists as a relationship, typically between individual people, but also collectively to an organisation, for example. Such ‘relational-assets’ are genuine assets in their own right, and need to be maintained as such – hence CRM systems and so on.  But the asset is the relationship – not the person: the only time that the usually well-meant phrase “our people are our greatest asset” is correct is when those people are slaves – which is probably not a good idea… Aspirational-assets such as brands are perhaps more complex, but even there will often represent little more than yet another form of theft – Ferrari’s claim to ‘exclusive possession’ of a particular shade of red, for example, or Harley-Davidson’s ‘rights’ to a specific sound. (Things can get interesting when the ‘possession’ is challenged in complex social ways, such as @BPGlobalPR‘s relentless parody of BP’s ‘rights’ to their brand.)

There is an alternative to all of this mess, and we use it every day: responsibility-based ownership. When we talk about a ‘process-owner’ or ‘project-owner’ or the like, we don’t mean ‘the person who possesses it’ – in fact it’s when someone does try to take exclusive possession of it that it fails. Within an organisation, we get the best effectiveness by by establishing and enacting responsibilities for each item – and any attempt at any form of exclusive-possession will usually cause a severe loss of efficiency and effectiveness. The same applies in running a household (the literal meaning of ‘economy’, by the way): responsibility is what works, and possession is what causes most of the problems. We know all of this: we put it into practice every day. And yet we try to run an entire world economy on what is little different from the possessive tantrum of a two-year-old, and actively punish any moves towards responsibility, in almost any form. Which, yes, we could probably describe as seriously problematic…

So, to come back to Oscar’s original Tweet: “My best ideas that I use at work are born outside of office hours. Who owns these ideas?”

The short summary is that what works is responsibility; what fails is possession. Any attempt at ‘possessing’ either you or your mind or whatever will usually cause the direct loss of that ‘property’, for the simple reason that it’s part of you and cannot be separated from you. You can’t hand it over to someone else, like physical property: the inverse corollary of non-alienability is the inability to forget. And although the idea is expressed through you, and in that sense is sort-of ‘yours’, its roots actually rest in a myriad of other unidentified and probably unidentifiable people – so you cannot honestly that it was ever exclusively ‘yours’ in the first place. The corporation to which you ‘belong’ may claim that as part of its contract with you, it has the exclusive ‘right’ to any ideas you may have: but that too is a form of expropriation from you, for exactly the reason you’ve said – did the idea arise on ‘their’ time, or ‘yours’? (And with the boundaries between ‘work-time’ and ‘me-time’ becoming increasingly blurred, especially for professionals who are likely to create ‘intellectual property’, that question is becoming increasingly fraught – and the basis of an increasing number of increasingly-insane lawsuits…) And as above, it isn’t ‘your’ idea anyway, so you have no ethical basis on which you could give it to them as their ‘exclusive property’.

In short, the entire ‘intellectual-property’ domain is somewhere between a shambles and a sham. It is, bluntly, a fraud of almost unbelievable proportions, held together solely by bad analogy, wishful thinking, lawyers’ bluff and the sheer force of social habit. It has no ethical or other basis whatsoever. Which is kinda problematic if we want to build a so-called ‘information economy’ on that basis…

(Just doesn’t get me started on the even worse myths of the ‘relationship economy’…)

But what this does do is highlight the fact that even the physical-property possession-economy likewise does not and cannot work: it’s a fraud. As I understand it, there is no possible way in which a possession-based economy can be made sustainable: it gives better short-term results at the expense of much greater long-term losses, so the only way it can be made to seem sustainable is to run it as a pyramid-game, a Ponzi scheme. And at the world-scale it looks likely that we ran out of room on that pyramid-game about fifty to a hundred years ago: ever since then we’ve been like the cartoon-character who’s run off the cliff and hasn’t noticed yet that there’s nothing holding him up but thin air…

So we can use the absurdities of the notion of ‘possession’ of an idea – ‘intellectual property’ – to start looking much more closely at the entire way in which we manage our economy. The only way that will work is a responsibility-based model: ‘possession’ will literally kill us all if we don’t kill it off Real Soon Now. So yes, do keep asking those kind of questions, and do keep challenging the assumptions on which so called ‘property-rights’ are based: doing so may soon be literally the only way in which, collectively, we can find a way to survive.

That’s actually what Oscar’s question is: a question of life and death for us all.

Interesting, isn’t it? 🙂

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