December 23 2011
I have occasionally found myself in conversation, often in the presence of alcohol, about the ownership and value ideas. This post will attempt to document my current state of mind in these matters.
We routinely say "I have an idea", but I assert that nobody can own an idea. The closest one can come to owning an idea is to have private (possibly exclusive) possession of it. Sitting on an idea (or indeed implementing it and using it privately) could prevent others from implementing the idea, but it also would not prevent them. What is interesting about this, too, is that one would have no way of knowing if they had exclusive possession of the idea, since others could also possess it privately.
I've often heard things such as: "If I have an idea for something great, I should be able to benefit from it." I don't think it is that simple, nor do I think it should be. I like to imagine it from the perspective of conservation of energy. In my opinion, "having an idea" doesn't cost anything -- there's no work done, no trial and error, no refinement, no experimentation, it's purely the creation of an abstract concept. All of the work, all of the energy required to develop the idea into something real, that happens after having an idea. All of the work of implementing (or at least designing an implementation or possible implementation) is the where the value is created, and that is from what a person should be able to derive benefit.
If you suppose for a moment, that someone could have some sort of exclusive right over an idea, what would that actually mean? Could they prevent other people from doing anything that could be conceivably based on that idea? Could they demand a share of any derived revenue, or control? Could they demand credit? For how long? Ugh, chaos follows. The world would grind to a halt due to this complexity. The advantage you get for having an original (or at least somewhat original) idea is a slight head start.
An idea is something that one can benefit from, but that the rest of society also has the same opportunity for benefit. This actually makes me quite happy.
What does one do if they have an idea and want to make it into something real, but have no applicable skills? Hire people. No money? Make non-disclosure agreements or other contracts which will help protect what other people do with the information you given to them, and prevent them from doing other things that could possibly relate to the idea. This is a joke, though, few talented developers will agree to these sort of terms. Both sides need to have something of value to offer, and ideas are not value held by either side, because they are not able to be owned.
A friend brought the subject of Facebook up after seeing The Social Network.
- Facebook became huge because of how it was made and marketed.
- The idea for Facebook wasn't a new, nor original, idea.
- Even if it was some brand new idea, it doesn't matter, since nobody can own the idea.
TL;DR: Ideas are worth a lot to society, but not much to individuals. Execution is the opposite.
Finally, some advice for anybody who wants to make things and profit from them: figure out something you can contribute; ideas aren't enough. If you're content to just contribute to society: publish your ideas, let people use them, and hope for the best.
(also, a related post that I previously linked to and agreed with, but the notion that the worth of ideas differs for society as a whole vs the "owner" is new for me)