I feel like I need to defend myself before I can even start writing. As a disclaimer, I do believe in capitalism and competition, but I also believe that there are bigger goals in life than maximum profit. This is one of them.
This was the original goal of the patent and copyright systems. If you look back at the U.S. Constitution, you find a short section referred to as the copyright clause:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
Intellectual property is a recent idea. Before copyrights and patents, knowledge was protected by simply not telling anyone. So, if you had an innovative means to distill alcohol, fold metal, or make violins, you would protect the secrets and sell the results. The reason for this is pretty clear… if people were to make public the methods they spent time and labor engineering, others could profit without putting in the same effort. Because of this, many secrets were lost over time, and even today have not been fully rediscovered.
Recognizing that valuable learning was being lost, patent laws were created which codified an agreement between producers and the government. If an innovator shared their discoveries or inventions with the public, in exchange, the government would grant an exclusive license to the innovator to produce that item for a limited time. Keep in mind that the inventor was purchasing a license for his own work from the civil government in exchange for divulging the secrets. He was making the information publicly available, and, in exchange, was receiving back exclusive rights to his work. He always the option to keep his knowledge secret, but was risking others discovering his methods and not being protected. (We still have this form of protection codified in “trade secrets“, but even those laws have been mangled beyond recognition.)
Nowhere in the original patent laws do we see any ideas about intellectual property or the ownership of ideas. Historically, there is no precedent for owning an idea or a process, and that once divulged, a thought can no longer be controlled by the thinker. The Bible gives us very strong principles regarding property and ownership of tangible items, condemning general theft (Exodus 20:15), but also giving more details regarding restitution for theft (Exodus 22:1-4), theft due to negligent destruction (Exodus 22:6), etc. We also learn about things that aren’t considered theft like gleaning (Leviticus 23:22). In fact, failure to allow the poor to glean from your fields was considered theft from the poor.
Throughout all of scripture, we never see any hint that information or knowledge is something that can be stolen, or that stealing a thought, idea, or song was condemned by God or anyone else. (I’d love to be proven wrong, and encourage any information to be posted in the comments.)
I believe the reason for this is fairly obvious… “taking” an idea does not actually remove anything from the originator. Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
So, this leads into my love affair with Open Source Ecology (OSE). Currently, many of the tools that our society uses every day to survive are wrapped up in many layers of intellectual property laws. The OSE team has realized that many societies around the world are unable to pay for the initial costs of purchasing many of the industrial tools, nor can they afford for continue to pay for the maintenance and rights to continue to use those tools. Instead, the OSE team is working to produce a Global Village Construction Set, which is a tool set comprised of what they refer to as the “50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small civilization with modern comforts.” Each of these tools will be designed, built, and testing, and each tool will be shared along with the design drawing, materials lists, and software needed to build the tools.
As information becomes more and more locked up by international treaties, I’m excited that there are groups that are bucking the trend, and promoting the growth and sharing of knowledge, instead of the hording of knowledge to maximize profits. I’d encourage you to look for opportunities to help share the knowledge you have, and also to support organizations like Open Source Ecology, the Free Software Foundation, and Wikimedia, who are working to “promote the progress of science”.
Now, if we could just get Bible translations out from under the thumb of copyright laws and publishers.