Acton Institute Powerblog

Should ideas be considered property?

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The industrial revolution did not begin in the eighteenth century, but was a gradual process of development comprised of the individual actions of thousands of innovators across time. The dramatic changes in the world have come about partially due to the technological growth, some of which developed out of this revolution of industry. It is not the result of a few “great, singular men”, but of many interconnected individual innovations. Jeffrey Tucker, Director of Content at FEE (Foundation for Economic Education) painted a vivid picture of the role of technology and ideas in shaping the world we live in today in an Acton University lecture titled “Technology and Markets: Medieval Times to Modernity.” He emphasized the importance of the medieval era for technological growth and formation, particularly the gradual emergence of the social norm of respecting the property rights of others.

Despite the importance of property rights, Tucker argues that ideas should not be thought of as property. Property rights exist when there exists conflict over use for different ends, which necessitates defined ownership. Ideas can be used by many people simultaneously. “Imagine if someone had the patent for a horseshoe,” said Tucker. Would the idea have spread as rapidly? Would people have benefited from its use and development as they did? Tucker credits the horseshoe as one of many causes for the growth in agricultural output in medieval Europe, which in turn led to population growth and further development. Since the idea was free, more people benefited from the horseshoe.

Technological growth comes about from the trade and exchange of concepts and ideas. Each innovation builds on previous innovations, connected in a web of technology that encompasses the world. The more and the freer the trade, the more and better technological growth. As trade grows, so does the spread of knowledge and ideas, and the resulting innovation.

Tyler Groenendal


  • Philosophical Actuary

    It does not seem that ideas as such can be owned, because ideas as such cannot be held with the exclusivity essential to ownership. Patents seem to be certain temporary rights of use of an idea which can be owned. Patents may encourage innovation by providing the incentive of exclusive use for the innovator for at least a temporary period. Without that exclusivity, innovation is less attractive as the the innovator would reap significantly less for his labors.

  • H. A. S.

    Jeffrey Tucker has written books. His books are ideas printed on paper. Should whole swaths of his books could be cut and pasted into other books or online media because ideas should not be owned? Or does he own the arrangement of the ideas in his books? The arrangement of words? A painter, a novelist, a photographer and so on… could never thrive if ideas do not have ownership to some extent. I see the point about the horseshoe, but you could take an example of tangible property and argue the same. Take for example a small town that has one resource on a private piece of land that would benefit the whole town. The property owner does not want to share that resource even though it would benefit the whole town and cause everyone to thrive. What then?

    • Philosophical Actuary

      Your example taken seriously does raise important questions. Suppose that the one resource was the only potable water reachable by the community. What is the extent of the authority of the owner to deny the community access though they would perish? Not far I would imagine.This could be extended to ideas such as the method for creating a vaccine or antibiotic during a epidemic.

      • H. A. S.

        Yes, very good illustrations of how problematic both tangible and abstract resources can be. There is a modern day example of the pharmaceutical company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, hiking up the price of Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 a tablet. I believe there was a court case about it, as it was a dire situation for many… Even eminent domain could have potential extenuating circumstances.