Moving to Freedom, .Org

John Perry Barlow: The Economy of Ideas

mind grapes

I recently re-encountered an article by John Perry Barlow, “The Economy of Ideas.” Do you know who this guy is? Among other things, he’s written lyrics for the Grateful Dead and he co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I like the EFF. I give money regularly to them because they are fighting the good fight when it comes to our digital freedom.

In 1992, Barlow wrote (or started to write, at least) “The Economy of Ideas.” I’ve been reading the Wired version, published in 1994, and subtitled “A framework for patents and copyrights in the Digital Age. (Everything you know about intellectual property is wrong.)”, but also found this home for the essay at

I’m blown away, again, at how clearly he saw the shape of things to come. You should read the whole thing, of course, but in our tl;dr world, I’ll pull out a few choice excerpts that grabbed me on this reading. Please note that I painfully whittled these selections down even further just to get to the 1,200 words quoted here.

Let’s see:

In any case, without our old methods, based on physically defining the expression of ideas, and in the absence of successful new models for nonphysical transaction, we simply don’t know how to assure reliable payment for mental works. To make matters worse, this comes at a time when the human mind is replacing sunlight and mineral deposits as the principal source of new wealth.

Furthermore, the increasing difficulty of enforcing existing copyright and patent laws is already placing in peril the ultimate source of intellectual property - the free exchange of ideas.

That is, when the primary articles of commerce in a society look so much like speech as to be indistinguishable from it, and when the traditional methods of protecting their ownership have become ineffectual, attempting to fix the problem with broader and more vigorous enforcement will inevitably threaten freedom of speech. The greatest constraint on your future liberties may come not from government but from corporate legal departments laboring to protect by force what can no longer be protected by practical efficiency or general social consent.

And that’s pretty much what’s been happening for the past twenty years. And of course it’s not just the corporations. They own the government, so their wishes are regularly given the force of law.

I’ve been reading techdirt for years, where they post multiple times daily about the abuses and horror stories growing out of this situation.


From Swords to Writs to Bits

Humanity now seems bent on creating a world economy primarily based on goods that take no material form. In doing so, we may be eliminating any predictable connection between creators and a fair reward for the utility or pleasure others may find in their works.

Without that connection, and without a fundamental change in consciousness to accommodate its loss, we are building our future on furor, litigation, and institutionalized evasion of payment except in response to raw force. We may return to the Bad Old Days of property.

Throughout the darker parts of human history, the possession and distribution of property was a largely military matter. “Ownership” was assured those with the nastiest tools, whether fists or armies, and the most resolute will to use them. Property was the divine right of thugs.


Since it is now possible to convey ideas from one mind to another without ever making them physical, we are now claiming to own ideas themselves and not merely their expression. And since it is likewise now possible to create useful tools that never take physical form, we have taken to patenting abstractions, sequences of virtual events, and mathematical formulae - the most unreal estate imaginable.
In certain areas, this leaves rights of ownership in such an ambiguous condition that property again adheres to those who can muster the largest armies. The only difference is that this time the armies consist of lawyers.

Threatening their opponents with the endless purgatory of litigation, over which some might prefer death itself, they assert claim to any thought which might have entered another cranium within the collective body of the corporations they serve. They act as though these ideas appeared in splendid detachment from all previous human thought. And they pretend that thinking about a product is somehow as good as manufacturing, distributing, and selling it.

And that’s exactly how it is today.

And this makes entirely too much sense:

In a more perfect world, we’d be wise to declare a moratorium on litigation, legislation, and international treaties in this area until we had a clearer sense of the terms and conditions of enterprise in cyberspace. Ideally, laws ratify already developed social consensus. They are less the Social Contract itself than a series of memoranda expressing a collective intent that has emerged out of many millions of human interactions.

Humans have not inhabited cyberspace long enough or in sufficient diversity to have developed a Social Contract which conforms to the strange new conditions of that world. Laws developed prior to consensus usually favor the already established few who can get them passed and not society as a whole.

But the world is imperfect, and look, now we’re getting ACTA. Yay.

Something for “creators” to think about:

But for a long time, our static media, whether carvings in stone, ink on paper, or dye on celluloid, have strongly resisted the evolutionary impulse, exalting as a consequence the author’s ability to determine the finished product. But, as in an oral tradition, digitized information has no “final cut.”

Digital information, unconstrained by packaging, is a continuing process more like the metamorphosing tales of prehistory than anything that will fit in shrink-wrap. From the Neolithic to Gutenberg (monks aside), information was passed on, mouth to ear, changing with every retelling (or resinging). The stories which once shaped our sense of the world didn’t have authoritative versions. They adapted to each culture in which they found themselves being told.

Because there was never a moment when the story was frozen in print, the so-called “moral” right of storytellers to own the tale was neither protected nor recognized. The story simply passed through each of them on its way to the next, where it would assume a different form. As we return to continuous information, we can expect the importance of authorship to diminish. Creative people may have to renew their acquaintance with humility.

We may be creators, but we’re not God.

In this passage:

Nevertheless, most of what a middle-class American purchases has little to do with survival. We buy beauty, prestige, experience, education, and all the obscure pleasures of owning. Many of these things can not only be expressed in nonmaterial terms, they can be acquired by nonmaterial means.

And then there are the inexplicable pleasures of information itself, the joys of learning, knowing, and teaching; the strange good feeling of information coming into and out of oneself. Playing with ideas is a recreation which people are willing to pay a lot for, given the market for books and elective seminars. We’d likely spend even more money for such pleasures if we didn’t have so many opportunities to pay for ideas with other ideas. This explains much of the collective “volunteer” work which fills the archives, newsgroups, and databases of the Internet. Its denizens are not working for “nothing,” as is widely believed. Rather they are getting paid in something besides money. It is an economy which consists almost entirely of information.

This may become the dominant form of human trade, and if we persist in modeling economics on a strictly monetary basis, we may be gravely misled.

I love: “the strange good feeling of information coming into and out of oneself.” Yes! Social networking, you know. The joy of sharing. Of transmitting and receiving.

Barlow is a little off the mark here:

How all the foregoing relates to solutions to the crisis in intellectual property is something I’ve barely started to wrap my mind around. It’s fairly paradigm warping to look at information through fresh eyes - to see how very little it is like pig iron or pork bellies, and to imagine the tottering travesties of case law we will stack up if we go on legally treating it as though it were.

As I’ve said, I believe these towers of outmoded boilerplate will be a smoking heap sometime in the next decade, and we mind miners will have no choice but to cast our lot with new systems that work.

I’m not really so gloomy about our prospects as readers of this jeremiad so far might conclude. Solutions will emerge. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does commerce.

But it’s forgiveable. He was overly optimistic. The outmoded stuff isn’t a smoking heap yet, and still seems to be going strong. And I agree that one day things will get better, but will it be in ten or one hundred or one thousand years?

And, despite their fierce grip on the old legal structure, companies that trade in information are likely to find that their increasing inability to deal sensibly with technological issues will not be remedied in the courts, which won’t be capable of producing verdicts predictable enough to be supportive of long-term enterprise. Every litigation will become like a game of Russian roulette, depending on the depth of the presiding judge’s clue-impairment.

And this is again the daily litany at techdirt, about how screwed up our patent system is and how much harm it is causing to the economy and companies that actually innovate.

I guess I should be grateful to live in interesting times. I just hope I’m around long enough to see us start figuring it out.

Previously More Still...