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Why Accountants are Dull and Guitarists are Glamorous - The End of Intellectual Property

Adrian Bowyer


"Intellectual property is dead." Eric von Hippel, Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in his keynote address to the World Conference on Mass Customization and Personalization, MIT, October 2007.

Go up to a stranger in the street and ask them to give you the keys to their car, and you will receive an abrupt and unhelpful reply. Go up to a stranger in the street and ask them to give you their most interesting idea, and fifteen minutes later you will be glancing at your watch and inventing fictitious dentist's appointments.

This prompts a profound biological question: if information is such valuable property, what is the Darwinian selective advantage in the ubiquitous impulse to give it away?

The answer was worked out a few years ago by the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller. He realised that the human mind did not just evolve as a problem-solving device, it also evolved by sexual selection. The peacock's tail is the most famous example of this. The tail is an extension of a signal of health (shiny plumage) to absurd lengths. Peahens admire peacocks with fancy tails because their ancestors admired peacocks with shiny plumage, so the shiniest males got to father all the offspring, and the females among those offspring inherited an admiration for shininess. The whole thing went into positive feedback, a phenomenon first explained by Darwin.

Parts of the human mind are there for the same reasons. It obviously makes sense for women to want to have children with the most clever practical men. Add a few tens of thousands of years of positive feedback and we all arrive at the place we are now, where parts of our intellect are like the spots on the peacock's tail. You cannot pretend to paint a picture well, or pretend to write a quatrain of iambic pentameters well - you cannot pretend to be witty. You need to exert real intellectual effort to do those things, all of which - like the tail spots - have no utilitarian value.

"But hang on," you say. "If that were so, then you would expect only men to be talented, because sexual selection works through the power of female choice selecting the best males. But everyone except the most unreconstructed chauvinist can see that women are as clever as men."

True, normally: it is the peacocks that have to drag around the tail and the stags that have to hold the antlers aloft. But, to choose between them, peahens and hinds just need good eyesight, whereas the only way for a woman to judge if a man is clever is for her to be equally clever herself - the transmitting device and the receiving device are the same: their minds. That is why the most important four letters in lonely-hearts columns are GSOH, why musicians, painters, authors, and actors (who all exhibit extravagant - though useless - tail-spot-like creativity) are so attractive to the opposite sex, why bank managers, engineers and computer programmers (who don't waste their intellect, but use it for gainful things like a now-imaginary peacock with a sensible tail) are considered geeky and unattractive, and why we all want to tell people any inspired idea as soon as it comes into our head. Showing off cleverness by broadcasting it is one of the main things our brains are for.

If Alice gives Bob a material object, Alice no longer has the object. But if Alice gives Bob an idea, Alice still retains the idea. Information - unlike matter and energy - is not conserved. That is why, when teenagers swap music files, they do not instinctively feel that it is theft. Consequently there is - in reality - no copyright in recorded music any more; every seventeen-year-old has twenty gigabytes of illegal MP3s on their hard drive, and film and video will soon go the same way.

The whole concept of intellectual property is only stable when copying is difficult and legal penalties mean significant losses for those who would copy. Make copying easy and undetectable (as computers have for music) and the very idea of intellectual property starts to fade.

But creativity doesn't fade with it. There is now an outpouring of music all over the whole world unmatched since that in late eighteenth century Vienna. This is happening because the same technology that is eliminating music copyright allows anyone to make music and to try to find an audience for it. Most musicians don't compose because they have rationally calculated that it is a good way to get rich, they compose because they are driven by an inner compulsion. And an inner compulsion is exactly what you'd expect from an evolutionarily-selected mating trait.

So copyright is sublimating away under the twin fires of ease-of-copying and people's desire to give their creations away rather than have them remain obscure. But what of patents? Copying an iPod is not nearly as easy as copying tunes into it.

However, 3D printing will completely replace vast swathes of conventional manufacturing processes as it becomes less costly. And what will really drive the cost through the floor is 3D printers that print 3D printers, like RepRap. Conventional manufacturing produces goods in an arithmetic progression. But a self-copying 3D printer produces goods - and itself - in a geometric progression. And, no matter how slow it is, any geometric progression overtakes every arithmetic progression, no matter how fast, eventually.

The self-copying 3D printer will be something cheap enough for individuals to own and be something they can copy for their friends. When everyone can print almost any device or machine the same will happen to the idea of patents as has happened to music copyright.

Engineering is coming home. We have private individuals building spacecraft in sheds and winning Anousheh Ansari's X-Prize. We have private individuals developing Farnsworth deuterium fusion reactors in their basements. We have reached a point in history where our most advanced technology is dirt cheap.

Self-copying 3D printers will make it an order of magnitude cheaper again, and will finally kill the idea of intellectual property. But - just as with computers and music - they will also expand creativity, because people don't create things just to make money; the real reason they create things is to get noticed by other people with whom they want to have children...

This is a slightly modified version of an article that originally appeared in Time Compression Technology Magazine, volume 15, issue 3, p33 in June 2007.

-- Main.AdrianBowyer - 26 Jun 2007