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December 23, 2011
Big Ideas

I have occasionally found myself in conversation, often in the presence of alcohol, about the ownership and value ideas. This post will attempt to document my current state of mind in these matters.

We routinely say "I have an idea", but I assert that nobody can own an idea. The closest one can come to owning an idea is to have private (possibly exclusive) possession of it. Sitting on an idea (or indeed implementing it and using it privately) could prevent others from implementing the idea, but it also would not prevent them. What is interesting about this, too, is that one would have no way of knowing if they had exclusive possession of the idea, since others could also possess it privately.

I've often heard things such as: "If I have an idea for something great, I should be able to benefit from it." I don't think it is that simple, nor do I think it should be. I like to imagine it from the perspective of conservation of energy. In my opinion, "having an idea" doesn't cost anything -- there's no work done, no trial and error, no refinement, no experimentation, it's purely the creation of an abstract concept. All of the work, all of the energy required to develop the idea into something real, that happens after having an idea. All of the work of implementing (or at least designing an implementation or possible implementation) is the where the value is created, and that is from what a person should be able to derive benefit.

If you suppose for a moment, that someone could have some sort of exclusive right over an idea, what would that actually mean? Could they prevent other people from doing anything that could be conceivably based on that idea? Could they demand a share of any derived revenue, or control? Could they demand credit? For how long? Ugh, chaos follows. The world would grind to a halt due to this complexity. The advantage you get for having an original (or at least somewhat original) idea is a slight head start.

An idea is something that one can benefit from, but that the rest of society also has the same opportunity for benefit. This actually makes me quite happy.

What does one do if they have an idea and want to make it into something real, but have no applicable skills? Hire people. No money? Make non-disclosure agreements or other contracts which will help protect what other people do with the information you given to them, and prevent them from doing other things that could possibly relate to the idea. This is a joke, though, few talented developers will agree to these sort of terms. Both sides need to have something of value to offer, and ideas are not value held by either side, because they are not able to be owned.

A friend brought the subject of Facebook up after seeing The Social Network.

  1. Facebook became huge because of how it was made and marketed.
  2. The idea for Facebook wasn't a new, nor original, idea.
  3. Even if it was some brand new idea, it doesn't matter, since nobody can own the idea.

TL;DR: Ideas are worth a lot to society, but not much to individuals. Execution is the opposite.

Finally, some advice for anybody who wants to make things and profit from them: figure out something you can contribute; ideas aren't enough. If you're content to just contribute to society: publish your ideas, let people use them, and hope for the best.

(also, a related post that I previously linked to and agreed with, but the notion that the worth of ideas differs for society as a whole vs the "owner" is new for me)

Posted by andrew stoeckley on Sat 24 Dec 2011 at 13:30 from 24.14.51.x
hm, this post has some interesting ideas...

Posted by AnalSeducer on Sat 24 Dec 2011 at 23:40 from 206.217.221.x
Drink more, it's interesting to have thoughts and talks like these. Your post reminded me a bit of Howard Hughes father. His father made his fortunes by leasing bits to people so they could drill into the ground to strike oil. Prior to this, he had nothing going on in his life and was not wealthy at all. He was said to be handsome, a charmer and a gambler. That was pretty much it.

When the oil craze hit, people tried to make tools that would drill further into the ground to increase the chances of striking oil. Eventually, he took a look at these machines and bought one. The problem was that they couldn't drill good enough into the ground. So he decided to make a different bit and attached it to the machine. He realized that the design he and a colleague came up with worked much better and went further into the ground. Which is what people needed. Soon after this he started to lease them to anyone who wanted to drill for oil and charged a huge price. And during the oil craze people were willing to accept that price. Because if they struck oil, the money they would gain would be well worth the bill for the lease. This is how he made his wealth.

He didn't invent the machine he was using, he just made a different design for the bit that could be used and that changed everything for him.

Just like in your post about ideas. It does suck that someone can have an idea and do nothing with them. But yet someone else comes up with the same idea and implements it can get in trouble for it by law. This reminds me patents, and it is a shame that someone can have a patent and do nothing with it. And someone who takes the risk without knowing gets into trouble.

Side note. Howard Hughes Sr did end up with a patent for two-crone roller bit.

Posted by Jim Strider on Mon 02 Jan 2012 at 23:27 from 67.188.228.x
Thus begins JF's slow drift toward the Republican party... ;-)

Posted by Justin on Tue 03 Jan 2012 at 03:55 from 208.105.86.x
HA HA, yeah, right.

Posted by Klaxon on Tue 07 Feb 2012 at 00:42 from 70.74.88.x
Copying is to copyright as execution is to an idea. Copying creates value, but is not valued.

Posted by Eye Beauty Help on Fri 17 May 2013 at 16:23 from 123.28.112.x
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Posted by Sir Reginald O. Thweedhammer, III on Thu 21 Nov 2013 at 22:30 from 108.78.7.x
Quite an old post I've stumbled upon and am responding to. But there is a lot to think about here.

You said, "publish your ideas, let people use them, and hope for the best."

Hope may not be the best survival mechanism, depending on one's lot in life.

I'm not sure that is a comforting concept to long-starving musicians, for example.

Having said that, I don't entirely disagree. If you are but a pebble on this earth, tossing some of your brilliance in the public ring is a better choice than remaining silent and doing nothing.

Perhaps someone will see your noteworthy "lighntning in a bottle" and, like winning a human lottery, select you to serve them in some greater, rewarding capacity. Or not.

I'm all for pondering the ideas of others, but emulating them is folly, since time, place, and other variables can never be precisely realligned and repeated.

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