Freedom and Property

At Computers and Writing last year, I briefly chatted with John Logie about some of the smart things I’d recently had the good fortune to hear him say about intellectual property. He made the case in our conversation (as well as in some of his recent presentations) that advocates of openness in intellectual property would do well to reframe the debate away from the term “property” because of the ways the term itself — “property” — is both inaccurate (owning an idea is not the same as owning a car) and tends to make people feel instinctively possessive. I get that, and I’m kind of with him on it.

The problem I see, though, is that notions of property and ownership are so deeply woven into all aspects of our culture that it’s really, really hard not to say “mine.” Especially when it comes to stuff that is somehow connected to you. In fact, I’m kind of wondering: for some belief systems, doesn’t all morality and ethical individual conduct essentially come from the concept of ownership, and from the concept of self-ownership in particular? I’m thinking here especially of John Locke and Chapter V of the Second Treatise on Government (and, to a lesser degree, some of the ideas in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding): in other words, the concept away from which Logie wants to shift the debate is one that’s deeply foundational, and in some ways part of the bedrock of Western democracies.

Are there possible alternatives? Other ways to think about ideas in ways that don’t rely on conceptions of individual ownership as foundational and necessary to freedom? What are some positive opposing terms for “ownership”?

I don’t know. Rousseau’s notion of the freedom of the self and the way — in my limited understanding — that he seems to conceive of individual liberty and a sort of positive self-determination might be a possible alternative. But if Logie’s talking about reframing the debate, Western audiences tend to go for Locke a lot more than they go for Rousseau.

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