On Intellectual Property And The Human Soul

I don’t have a consistent stance on copyright and intellectual property – I suspect most people don’t. We just make do with shaky beliefs and half-assed ideals. So I decided to finally think it through and come up with some sort of philosophical basis on this issue. Below is the the resulting epic rant. If you don’t want to read the entire 1000+ word treatise here’s my conclusion in a nutshell – the idea of intellectual property and copyright is redundant and meaningless because it is impossible to control information.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to discuss such intangible matters with anyone, so my rhetoric skills might be a bit rusty nonexistent. Oh wait, this is a blog. Nevermind then, off we go :P

The Subject of Intellectual Property

Copyright and intellectual property laws assume that the author of information is entitled to some degree of control over the information he/she/it created. These laws then attempt to specify and regulate what rights the author has. The actual rules differ by country and state but the initial assumption of the existence of author’s rights remains. There is also another, implied assumption – that information can be controlled.

What Is Information?

Wait, don’t rush to Wikipedia. There are various definitions for information and not all of them are equally useful in the context of intellectual property. For the purpose of this rant I will define information as the combination of Data and Context, and I will assume you need to be able to control either of them to control information.

Take, for example, a video file. The raw bits and bytes in the file are data. Lots of people (and organizations) assume that the file is itself the information, but this is not true. On it’s own the file is simply a random stream of bits, meaningless. Some context, e.g. a video player with the necessary codecs installed, is required to extract some meaning from the file. Data and context are inseparable, as only together they attain the intangible property of information.

If you still aren’t convinced that data isn’t equal to information, consider this. It is possible to encode (or encrypt) any file in such a way that it’s contents become equal to any arbitary binary string. For example, you could create a decoder that takes the word “shenanigans” and produces a DVD-rip of the “Dark Knight”. Some might say, “Aha, but that means you have encrypted the movie in the decoder and ‘shenanigans’ is the password!” Indeed, it appears that context and data have traded places – the decoder has the data (an encrypted movie) and “shenanigans” – the password – is the context. This is actually not the case. The real answer is both of them – the decoding algorithm and the password – are data. So where’s the context? Hmm, I’ll get back to it later.

Can you control data?

Data, the raw bits and bytes. Data is the stuff you can transmit to others. Assuming any kind of data interchange is allowed, one needs to be able to identify what one wants to cotrol. Lets take a basic, real-life example – the government considers unauthorized online distribution of copyrighted information illegal and wants to stop it. Not all information is illegal to distribute, so they must find a way to recognize the copyrighted info. The problem is the raw bits and bytes that travel the internet are not information – they’re only data. Add a bit of strong encryption, and it’s just random noise, impossible to identify. Sidenote: philosophically speaking any string of bytes is, and should be treated as, random noise because it is meaningless without some kind of context.

So raw data can not (and should not) be controlled, as it is impossible to identify and understand. Even in the case that data appears to be meaningful (e.g. the word “shenanigans” in the earlier example) it is impossible to prove that what one perceives as it’s information content is actually the intended one – you need the context for that (e.g. the “decoder”/encrypted file discussed before).

What is context?

To start off, it’s easier to say what the context is not :

  • It’s not the bitstream that constitutes a file, encrypted or not.
  • It’s not the software used to display or decipher a file. Software is simply another stream of bits.
  • And it’s not the password – that’s just another random stream of bits.

So what’s left? Is there even anything else to consider here?

Yes, there is another, important aspect – the decision to combine the various pieces of data. Unless you command a video player to display the contents of a file both the file and the player will remain meaningless streams of data. Furthermore, even then the image rendered to the screen is only data – there must be someone watching for it to become a movie. You are the context. Or – “beauty is in the eye of beholder”.

Information consists of both data and context. Data is anything transmitted between two entities. To extract information from, say, a movie, the receiver needs an understanding of facial expressions, emotions, psychology, instincts, language, basic physics and so on. Many of these are considered to be inherent human qualities. Most of the data created in the “human” context requires a human mind to become information.

Can you control context?

No. If the context is the human mind, “controlling the context” essentially means “mind control”. That’s blatantly immoral in any sane school of ethics. Therefore, no-one has the right to control the context.

Since neither data nor the context can be controlled, copyright and intellectual property laws are redundant and meaningless.

I used IT-related examples above, but the same applies to other areas. For example, the letters in a physical book constitute the data, and the context is the consciousness of the reader.

But wait! That’s not all.

Actually, for most practical purposes that is all. If data only becomes meaningful in the context of the human mind (that can decide to turn data into information and then interpret it), and you can’t control the data – and mustn’t control the mind, you can’t control information.

However, I’d like to rant on for a bit and point out some related interesting issues.

  • Maybe “context” is actually information? If you could theoretically transfer the human mind to another physical device (uploading), that would prove it is essentially information. So information = data + context = data + data + context… If so, is the word “information” actually meaningful?
  • Memetic defense. Can you tailor the information in such a way that it must necessarily change the context (the mind) so that it becomes unwilling to copy and spread the information unless arbitrary conditions are met?
  • Conversely, what about viral information (memes) that must spread in any way possible? Can you attach an arbitrary payload to a viral information piece?
  • It may be that the context need not be the human mind. I’m not talking about pre-programmed machines decoding and acting on data – those would be created by humans sentients, so the context is still the consciousness of their creator. No, the real trouble starts when you begin attaching pieces of context to the data. For example, if the receiver doesn’t know english, you can attach a dictionary or some kind of Rosetta stone to your book (for example). Hell, just send along the entire ontology of human knowledge. Is there really something you can’t attach to the data? I don’t know. Say, is there a “soul”?
  • What if the receiver has no intelligence and the data (the signal) is tailored to create an intellect? Can we do that and what happens if we do? If we create a new mind, we create a new context, right? What about controlling that, and is the fact that we created it an act of control?

One final thing : all physical objects = Information + Resources. Here “resources” consist of matter and energy, which are both essentially the same thing. What happens when molecular replicators (or whatever they’re called) become feasible and you can create a perfect copy of any object? Also, how do you handle resource ownership if matter/energy and information become independent? Think about it.

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