In a Virtual World, Who Owns Ideas?

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News Media Commentary
Title: In a Virtual World, Who Owns Ideas?
Commentator: Jon Katz
Date(s): March 13, 2000
Venue: online
External Links: posted here; WebCite
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In a Virtual World, Who Owns Ideas? is a 2000 post by Jon Katz.

It references's new Fan Homepages offer sounds good on the surface.


In a world splitting increasingly into real and virtual geographies, who owns ideas? The free music wars are just the first in a series of political, cultural and legal struggles that are putting the very idea of copyright and intellectual property on the table for the first time....

Who owns ideas?

It isn't an abstract or academic question. Some of the greatest prosperity in history has been created by an economic system -- capitalism -- which permits private parties to do business freely through a system of contract and property laws, agreements and understandings. Governments have always had a vested interest in defining rights to private property, and enforcing laws that protect it.
But property rights have never been absolute, unyielding or static. There is no such thing as property rights that aren't at some point subordinated to other interests. Your car can't be driven at any speed over somebody else's lawn; your dogs may be turned over to the local Humane Society if you mistreat them; your house can be auctioned if you don't pay taxes.

Now, the Net and Web have put the idea of copyright and intellectual property on the table for the first time in centuries. At the moment, nobody can clearly define what these things mean in virtual space, let alone how they should be regulated or policed.

Cyberspace has also highlighted the differences between intellectual property and other kinds. "If you 'take' my idea," writes Lawrence Lessig in his book Code, "I still have it. If I tell you an idea, you have not deprived me of it. An unavoidable feature of intellectual property is that its consumption, as the economists like to put it, is 'non-rivalrous.' Your consumption does not lessen mine. Ideas, at their core, can be shared with no reduction in the amount the 'owner' can consume. This difference is fundamental, and it has been understood since the founding."
In an insightful essay, Durack argues that fans paying for culture and supporting entertainment should be allowed leeway in the use of copyrighted and trademarked properties.

The notion of fan "rights" is a growing political instinct online, where people feel passionately about their culture, from ground-breaking representational experiences like Quake, Doom, Ultima and The Sims to followers of Star Trek, South Park, The Simpsons, and Star Wars. These games, movies and television programs transcend mere entertainment; they are an integral part of people's cultural experiences the same way music is. Durack's essay reflects the growing tension between "fans" and the companies that want to take their money -- but otherwise keep them at arm's length.

Durack's point of view is radical. It isn't widely held in political and media circles -- especially not in Washington.