Scarcity of Ideas

Jesper Rabjerg
Discord: jesp#8513

”Great.” says the expert Redditor in a sharp sarcastic tone. ”Another 2d puzzle platformer with a unique twist.” His own days of such trivial development are far behind him, and he himself has ascended to a higher state of being.

Within the gaming industry, other artistic mediums, the academic sphere, and the economy at large, the notion of idea ownership is pervasive. You see it in patents, in copyrights, in plagiarism, in scientific journals, in licenses for proprietary software, and when netflix cancels, and prohibits further creative work, on a show. All the time, everywhere, each idea is being held tightly by the small greasy fingers of the galaxy brains. Likewise, ideas expressed by someone who isn’t deemed to own them are frowned upon. There is an inherently competitive element in this way of understanding ideas: An assumption that reaching an idea first is virtuous and any continuation or transmutation of an existing idea is bad.

However: Ideas are not things to be owned, and they don’t originate from a single person. Instead, ideas are the synthesis of many people over a long period of time. Where would operating systems be without virtual memory? Physics without mathematics? These very ideas could not even be formulated in the first place without the hard labor of the working class. Everything you own: your computer, car, house, food, and water is the product of other people’s labor. And these could not exist without the collective history of ideas that led to these workers having the tools, skills, and technology needed to produce these things in the first place. While the academic is contemplating ”their own” ideas, someone else is working hard to keep them in their chair! We never give a second thought to these people and their ownership. Not to the child laborer in West Africa who picked our coffee, nor to the slaves who mined our lithium in Congo. If everyone who keeps you alive does not own the fruits of their labor, why should you?

This competitive notion of ideas is, like all things competitive, wasteful and inefficient. Intellectual property creates an artificial scarcity of ideas, which halts progress. If the national state fines you, or the academics shame you, or the redditor judges you for working on an idea, that is one less idea you can contribute to. Of course, the problem is not only that of a cultural understanding of idea ownership, but also that of the structure of our society. The economy requires scarcity, and the national state is there to enforce it. That is why it is illegal to download Elden Ring for free. That is why Warner Bros can copyright the nemesis system from Shadow of War. That is why Aaron Swartz, the co-founder of Reddit, could be sentenced to 35 years of prison for sharing scientific articles to the public.

We have people keeping their ideas secret, reinventing the wheel amongst themselves over and over, when they could work together and achieve something far greater than the sum of its parts. Whether you are researching medicine, creating a painting, or developing a 2d puzzle platformer with a unique twist, you are both taking from, and contributing to, the collective effort of humanity. And maybe, if you’re lucky, someone might just pick up on your contribution and develop it further, to the benefit of us all.