Religion & Liberty Online

Should ideas be considered property?

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.