Intellectual property comes in large part from the instinctive human concern for status and the scarcity of preeminence: Creativity and innovation, like money, aren't things we pull out of our pockets just to get food and shelter (or to get them more efficiently so as to have more leisure time). They're also largely for gaining admiration, power and influence--not to mention a mate. Note that it's easy to imagine societies without personal property but not societies without creativity based prestige--and likewise not a society without symbol-based designations of status, such as the headdresses, soldier stripes, priestly rituals and sumptuary laws. The king owns a sort of design patent or trademark on the crown and scepter and ermine that he wears.
An anthropological perspective on IP suggests why we need IP monopolies in modern society to incentivize innovation even though we didn't seem to need them before: In modern society, cultural and political affiliation encompass millions of people, and yet personal affiliations are remote and dispersed (family, friends and colleagues are not your neighbors). That suggests to me that in the absence of monopoly your innovation won't spread in a way that brings glory to you. It will spread fast, start bouncing off the national borders and soon seem to be coming from all directions-- originating from nobody, least of all you. Also the admiration of distributed fans is more abstract and less satisfying than being the village hero. And so nowadays we want and need our innovations to make us money, which we spend locally on the big home and fancy car that tells the people around us (wherever we drive) that we're special.
This perspective also arguably meshes with the natural poles of "wealth and fame" and Freud's "love and work." It explains why employers don't have to pay people so much money to be teachers and journalists--because such jobs pay a lot in prestige and influence. Scholarship is an almost entirely prestige-based economy that produces primarily IP. Politics seems to be at least a little like this too.
Finally (for now) as I've blogged vaguely about before, I think this means that for "free culture" to work, creators will need to remain associated with their creations in the minds of consumers and somehow earn admiration at a higher margin than they often do in our money-based IP culture. The Web provides free world-wide distribution of creations, but not intimacy between the creator and the audience, and it doesn't actively generate community. It allows exchange with your peers, but it doesn't easily let you feel the admiration of your admirers or show your admirers how admired you are. Britney doesn't see or hear you shout when she shakes it all about. She doesn't even know you're listening. And neither do the other listeners. But once the Web is really up to speed she will and they will. Then, I predict, the monetary cost of a lot more intellectual property will drop to zero.
P.S. Murky Thoughts is very proud (albeit not expressly licensed) to relate, "Judge Posner read your post and he says it sounds very sensible to him."
P.P.S. I think of "God" and religion as a kind of patent office, and I think part of why organized religion has been so popular is that it gets people producing in all kinds of ways for nothing. I think it's no coincidence IP law has developed as religiosity has waned.
Thursday, October 27, 2005