Can you own an idea? This may seem to be a simple question, however the question requires a complex answer. And unlike most issues, not all people who fall into the libertarian quadrant of the Nolan Chart agree on the answer.
While many people believe “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” some libertarians believe that an idea belongs to the creator even after the idea is shared and that imitation is theft. Recently, a three-year old dispute between Davi Barker and L. Neil Smith was reignited when Smith sent an email to one of Barker’s employers. Smith’s original complaint was that the Shire Society Declaration was “plagiarized directly from my ‘Covenant of Unanimous Consent’, absolutely without my knowledge or permission, and without even giving me proper credit as the author.” Smith further alleged, “you have altered and damaged my property, again without my knowledge or permission.”
First, Smith alleges theft of his idea, he then alleges the idea was “altered and damaged.” This allegation is based upon the notion that a person owns the idea even after it is shared. Smith also demanded restitution in some unspecified manner. Barker offered restitution if Smith would define the terms, and suggested mediation, which Smith declined. Barker wrote, “As a writer myself, I view the greatest honor that can be bestowed upon an author is to have inspired actual human action.”
Smith isn’t the only person to claim ownership of an idea after he shared the idea with other, some college professors are even attempting to claim copyright of their lectures. Once an idea is made public, the originator of the idea no longer has control of the idea. To illustrate this further allow me once Einstein went public with his Theory of Relativity, he no longer had control over how people used his theory. That is, Einstein could not rightfully claim to hinder anyone from making modifications to his theory. As Barker puts it, once an “ idea comes to rest inside my brain… my brain does not become you’re property.”
If Smith is correct that an idea is perpetually the “property” of the originator of the idea, and that no modifications can be made without expressed consent of the originator; Thomas Edison would not have been able to make a practical light bulb for commercial use without expressed permission from several other inventors; Henry Ford would not have been able to mass produce an automobile; and we would be without most of our modern conveniences.