Ideas can be owned (by means of a medium)
UPDATE: I felt it necessary to clarify that the article below argues for ownership by means of a semantic modification in language which ties the idea with the medium making them a single thing which can thus be owned to the extent to which it is your own medium that we're talking about. But if we view ideas as conceptually distinct from the medium yet realize that ideas cannot exist without the medium then ideas themselves cannot be owned. However by ownership of the medium (your brain cells, computer storage media etc.) you can deny a conveyance/download of your idea unless the downloader agrees to your terms which creates a contract.
Please keep these two possible ways of looking at it in mind as you read since this semantical difference is a difference between saying "ideas can be owned" and "ideas can't be owned but mediums can".
A lot of the past discussions on this site involved the question of idea ownership, mostly as part of the overall discourse on Free Software. I've usually been the one to state that ideas cannot be owned or at the very least fall under some sort of collective ownership. Today, however, I believe I was wrong. Not only do I no longer believe in collective ownership, but I do believe that ideas can and are being owned as good old fashioned private property.
Collective Ownership vs. No Ownership
First, here is some reasoning behind my lack of belief in collective ownership. By definition, ownership implies exclusive and absolute control over something. Collective ownership should thus imply that a given collective, essentially a group of people, has exclusive and absolute control over a thing. However, this is a logical impossibility because a group is merely an abstraction for a number of individuals. A "group" is not a singular being that can act or think and thus exercise any sort of control by itself. What's left to claim then is that ownership is simply shared by individuals within that group, but that brings about another logical impossibility based on the conflict with the very definition of ownership as exclusive and absolute control. How can two persons have exclusive and absolute control over the same thing?
I have also sometimes in the past asserted that perhaps ideas simply cannot be owned thus saying that some things, by their nature, cannot be owned at all. However, this seems to contradict certain reality based facts which everyone can easily observe. If I don't own something it simply means I don't have a right to exclusive or absolute control over it. If I don't own an idea then that means that I don't have exclusive and absolute control over an idea in my head. How can that be, though, if I have control over all of my thoughts? It implies that I am not the one to decide and indeed nobody is, whether an idea in my mind is to be used, considered, shared or done whatever else with. It's like the idea, then, as far as any human being is concerned, does not even exist to begin with. And that obviously is not true.
The concept of non-ownership is usually based on the claim that the nature of the thing being considered is such that it cannot be subjected to absolute and exclusive control. In essence, it is a claim that ownership depends on the nature of the thing. But according to this almost anything could be claimed as impossible to own. You cannot bend a rock, thus you have not absolute control over a rock and so you cannot own it. You cannot turn yourself into a unicorn and thus you don't own yourself. And so on. But if this was really so, and ownership didn't exist, then how come you are even capable of reading this? How come that your eyes cannot be used in the same fashion at the same time by someone else? How come that when you eat something only you can digest it at the same time and nobody else, and you have to eat to survive. All of this contradicts the idea that ownership doesn't exist and in fact poses that it is impossible not to exist.
But most of all, this rationale for denying the existence of ownership leads to complete dismissal of that which makes a thing to be what it is. Thus denying ownership of it is also like denying its nature as what it is. This reasoning effectively comes down to this: "If a rock cannot be anything else but a rock it cannot be owned." But if a rock was anything else but a rock, there would not be a rock whose ownership would have to be considered in the first place! It is in the nature of a rock not to be bent. It would not be a rock if this wasn't so, thus a question of whether you can own a rock or not cannot even be asked before we establish a rock as a rock.
This gives way towards a conclusion that ownership as an absolute and exclusive control over a thing implies only such control that is permitted by the nature of the thing. In other words, you can own everything (ownership of which rightfully belongs to you), but you are not a god. You cannot bend objective reality.
The same goes for ideas.
Yes, ideas can be owned.
So lets bring this to the point. It is in the nature of an idea that it cannot exist outside of a mind and that it can be shared only by means of communication between minds. The fact that you cannot exactly turn an idea itself into a physical thing (you can only make a physical representation of it), does not mean that you cannot own it. This is because it, the idea, would not be an idea, if it also had the ability to be physical.
It's even easier to attack the more common argument against idea ownership, however, which is rooted in false belief in the concept of collective ownership gone awry. If you believe in collective ownership you might also believe in that ideas cannot be anything but collectively owned, if nothing then because of how easy it is to share them. This leads to complete ignorance of the fact that a single idea does not exist within multiple minds at the same time. Enter the concept of copies.
If I have an idea I have control over it to every extent to which it is by the nature of an idea possible to have control over it. So I can decide to keep it to myself, write down words representing it in a private place or create that which the idea is about. Or I can decide to share it with others. If I share it with others, however, what happens is that I am simply making copies on the fly. Me communicating my idea to someone else is not a process of moving the idea from my mind to someone else's mind because in that case the idea would no longer exist in my mind. It is a process of copying. So as soon as you communicate an idea to someone else there are now two copies of the idea, one is owned by you and another is owned by the one you copied it to, by your own decision.
Those in the free software movement reading the title of this article may have assumed that this article suggests that proprietary software is based on sound principles and that there is nothing wrong with intellectual property. As you might be able to see by now, however, it rather suggests the opposite as far as support of proprietary software goes. If I own an idea I can decide not to share it, but if I do, I've made a copy to someone else's mind and by that act alone gave up ownership over that other copy. So that someone else now owns his own copy of an idea and should therefore have the same exact rights you had over your own copy. Proprietary software licenses are contracts which (try to) override this and use the government's copyright laws as a base and blueprint of such contracts and its police as their enforcer.
This override happens when the one who is about to make a copy of an idea or a software program or a piece of music (they all have similar qualities to ideas) seeks the recipient to agree to certain terms under which this second copy is going to be used and by doing so cede ownership rights over this copy to the one making it. Therefore proprietary contracts applied to copying and distribution of ideas are about establishing monopolies of ownership over all copies of the idea.
Clearly, there are significant problems with this. It is not that such contracts are invalid by themselves. Two or more people can agree to all kinds of terms, no matter how difficult it may be for them not to actually break them, but as far as asking of someone not to act as if (s)he owns an idea being copied to his or her mind's possession it could almost be said that the nature of ideas simply don't allow for such restrictions, and hoping to successfully seek them is fools quest. In that case, if you made a copy of your idea to someone else, you should probably forget about controlling it, and if you don't like that, then simply don't copy them in the first place. Keep it to yourself. Note that I am not making that claim here myself. You decide on that for yourself. I concede only that because of nature of ideas, restrictive idea sharing contracts are impractical and difficult to follow through.
Why is such restrictive licensing still so widespread despite such drawbacks is an interesting question, but one I may reserve for another article.
As far as the term "intellectual property" goes, in itself it is completely valid if describing the ownership of ideas (individual copies in your mind). The problem is that like many other terms its meaning has been diluted to the point at which it represents something quite different than this simple conception of idea ownership presented in this article. Sometimes it is used as an umbrella term for three related laws: patent law, copyright law and trademark law, which one way or another do relate to idea ownership, but do far more than to simply enforce agreements between individuals trading ideas, often forcing certain kinds of terms which otherwise would in many cases not be part of person to person agreements. Other times the term represents collective ownership of ideas, which was shown to be a completely false concept.