May 23, 2004

Owning ideas

Isaac Waisberg at ibergus points out that

Andrew Galambos argued that ideas were the primary form of property, claimed a property right in his own ideas, and required his students to agree not to repeat them. In Against Intellectual Property (PDF) Stephan Kinsella writes that Galambos "took his own ideas to ridiculous lengths dropping a nickel in a fund box every time he used the word "liberty" as a royalty to the descendants of Thomas Paine, the alleged "inventor" of the word "liberty"; and changing his original name from Joseph Andrew Galambos (Jr., presumably) to Andrew Joseph Galambos, to avoid infringing his identically-named father's rights to the name."

Galambos seems to have been unusual, not to say nuts, even before developing a neurodegenerative disorder at the age of 60 or so. According to Harry Browne's description,

He required every student entering one of his courses to sign a contract agreeing not to divulge any of the course ideas without permission from Galambos — and not even to use the ideas, in business or elsewhere, without permission. In effect, the course tuition bought you the right to become aware of the ideas, but not to use them or even to talk about them to outsiders.

This led to the humorous situation in which a graduate would rave about the course and insist that you take it — but when you asked him for examples of what was good, he would say, "Sorry, I can't tell you."

Even the MPAA and RIAA don't go that far. Of course, they might if they thought the courts would let them.

In fact, Galambos went even further, believing that those whose views were different from his were also guilty of theft of his intellectual property, compounded with mental deficiency:

He spoke frequently of one individual or another who had stolen his ideas. And if it were pointed out that the person was preaching ideas that were the opposite of Andrew's, Galambos would say the person had stolen Andrew's ideas but had gotten them all wrong.

Galambos' perspective -- that ideas are a sort of property whose distribution must be carefully monitored and controlled -- is counterproductive and incoherent, but it's not limited to crazy fringe libertarians. It seems to have been common in antiquity, for example among the Pythagoreans. Their model was the secret lore of religious cults rather than the personal property of small owners, but the result is similar. Imagine if that perspective had governed the development of our culture's intellectual life from Medieval times...

Copyright law is supposed to be about "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression", not about ideas. Trademark law is supposed to be about consumer protection. Patent law is supposed to be about inventions, not about ideas in general. However, there's constant pressure from interested parties to extend and broaden these laws, to the point where it's now merely unusual, as opposed to completely preposterous, for someone to claim to own a word. And "business methods" patents, combined with inappropriately trained and credulous patent examiners, open a door that in principle could lead to patenting the broader applications of basic algorithms.

Dibs on modus ponens. And let me point out, following Galambos, that illogical arguments may also be also violations, just incompetent ones.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 23, 2004 03:58 PM