Infinite Supply, the Problem with Copyrights & Patents

January 2, 2007 · Posted in abundance, economics, Intellectual Property 

In a comment to Economics Of Abundance Getting Some Well Deserved Attention a reader complained that there isn’t an infinite supply of good books, good music, and movies. This is flatly false, there’s an infinite supply of any intellectual property and it can be mathematically proven. How is that for being emphatic?

Don’t fear, I’m going to back up that statement and do the following:

  1. Prove there is an infinite supply of information.
  2. Show some reasons why Copyrights & Patents are logically flawed.
  3. List one form of intellectual property that is real and very valuable.

Digital media makes my point very clear. When you digitize a song, book or movie you convert it into numbers. And how many numbers are there? Infinite, you can keep counting forever. Computers store everything as a series of electrical impulses. We think of those as 1’s and 0’s. So inside a computer the music, videos, books and everything else is just a big number.

If you converted the phrase “infinite supply” into a stream of ones and zeros the way the computer sees it this is what it looks like:

01101001 01101110 01100110 01101001 01101110 01101001 01110100 01100101 00100000 01110011 01110101 01110000 01110000 01101100 01111001

As you look at that I’m sure it looks like a meaningless number. And that is the point. That phrase, “infinite supply” is just a meaningless number to a computer. Now look at this article. Up to this point it is 1,462 letters. When I save it on my computer it’s converted to a stream of 1’s and 0’s, it’s just a number. And like every number you could start at 1 and count up to the number equivalent of this article.

To count to the number that represents “infinite supply” you would pass “infinite supplx” and “infinite supplw”. You would also pass “supply”, “infinite”, “finite”, “in” and “a” and every possible combination of letters up to the 15 letter combination that make “infinite supply”. That is 2,954,312,706,550,833,698,643 combinations if we only include the letters “a” through “z” and blank space.

That is a huge number of combinations in only 15 letters. Now think about the number of combinations for 1,462 letters. It is larger than anyone can readily comprehend. And how many numbers are there? Infinite! You can keep counting forever. And in that infinite list of numbers are infinite good books.

And the same thing applies to music and movies. Every song or movie can be represented digitally, so it’s just a number. So there is an infinite supply of good movies and a never ending infinite supply of good music.

For my second point, copyrights and patents are based on a flawed concept. Can you imagine someone claiming ownership of the number “3”. That is exactly what someone does when they claim a copyright or a patent. You might argue that 3 is in the public domain so the copyright has expired. I’ll point out that 3 has always existed and so has every other number so every number is in the public domain. Now that you see any idea is just a number that means every idea is already in the public domain.

Whether you agree or not you still might claim we need copyrights and patents so people will keep working to discover new ideas. I agree that discovering useful ideas is valuable and we need that. But patents & copyrights don’t do that and in many ways even discourage discovery of new ideas.

Under a copyright or patent system if someone claims ownership of an idea such as an invention or a song the first thing they attempt to do is stop other people from using it. The idea was useful but now the supposed owner is trying to keep people from using it.

How much value is created by stopping people from using an idea? None! How many new ideas are created by stopping people from using a good idea? None!

Any idea is only valuable when used. It was there since the beginning of time waiting for someone to discover a use for the idea and it will remain until the end of time. There is no value in the song that isn’t sung.

How will people get paid for spending their time to discover ideas? Why should people pay attention discovering if they gain no value from doing it?

Now we have arrived at what is truly valuable. Attention is always limited. The issue isn’t about paying for information it’s about paying the person to spend their time to gather the information.

There are several ways to do this including subscriptions, charity, advertising, patronage, and work for hire. I explain this more in BBC Moves to File Sharing Sites.

And furthermore there is the intrinsic value of the discovery. Discovering the cure for cancer is valuable whether you get paid or not. Creating software that helps you get your work done more quickly or easily is valuable in itself. And people have always and will always sing songs and tell stories. There is joy in doing it.

Action Items

  • Read Artificial Scarcity
  • Watch “The Surprising History of Copyright and What It Means For Google.”