Sunday, November 21, 2004

On Gladwell on plagiarism & intellectual property

Malcom Gladwell's New Yorker piece on plagiarism and intellectual property set me to thinking. Here are a few of the resulting thoughts.

1) I think this question Gladwell wrestles with about the extent to which an intellectual property maker such as himself is actually victimized by a borrowing and/or theft ties in deeply and perhaps belongs to the matter of prestige and influence.

2) The article took me back to a moment in grad school, when I got really excited that a name I was coining for a technique might become the name by which everybody would eventually call it. I was longing to have my trademark violated, Gladwell might say. The value of the word or name in this case is the idea behind it. By using that name a scientist frames the natural world in a certain way--my way!--and implies that the people in my lab actually invented something (rather than incrementally adapting something else) and so my presitige is enhanced--though nobody may ever know who coined the name.

3) I think you could say a political candidate generates a whole lot of intellectual property in a campaign--"Bridge to the future," "compassionate conservativism" etc--and since campaigning generally pays no salary to the candidate, I feel tempted to say this is stuff that candidates get nothing in return for. But of course the candidate works for "political capital," like the prestige and influence that academics work for.

4) Everybody in modern society has ways they might go about putting a monetary price tag on almost anything, down to their own mother. But we seem to lack an instinctive sense for valuing prestige and influence. That says something about our development as a civilization, I think, but I don't think P&I are any less valuable or intrinsically harder to value than the things we know how to price: P&I get you T&A, among other things, so from the perspective of evolutionary biology, I would think they ought to rank right up there with food, shelter, tools and labor, for which we have arrived at money.

5) So I think by making patenting an article of the consitituion the founding fathers made a natural social advance. That is, to the extent they weren't just copying others.

BTW, when I sent these thoughts to Gladwell, he wrote back that they are "really interesting," so yawn at your peril.

[Postscript: In case point 5 is opaque, it's congratulating the framers for tethering food-shelter economy to the idea-influence economy and so facilitating transactions in the way that the invention of currency advanced us over barter.]

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