Metaphors are powerful. They help us understand abstract problems in terms that are physical and familiar. Through this association, metaphors often suggest a solution. They are merely words but they can be more powerful than facts and figures. Those who legislate know the power of metaphor.
Intellectual property is such a common metaphor that most just refer to it by its acronym (IP). But the familiarity of this metaphor also restricts the way we think about information.
If information is property, then the chief issue is ownership, and ownership entails certain exclusive rights. If I own a piece of land, I can build a fence around it and keep others out. I can sell the land, rent it, build a house on it. These are the rights that the state gives me, and this is backed up by hundreds of years of property law.
Information, however, has properties that make it sufficiently different from physical objects to question whether the property model is a good metaphor for information. Unlike natural resources, information is non-depletable. Overuse of information does not lead to its scarcity, nor does it attenuate its value; in fact, it does just the opposite. Secondly, it is non-rival, meaning that my reading an article does not deprive you of reading the same article. Lastly, it is difficult to exclude individuals from gaining access to information. Information, especially in its digital form, is porous and moves very easily between people. This is why I find the Open Access metaphor so problematic.
What about information as a “public good,” since public goods are by definition non-rival and non-excludable? This is just as problematic since it again frames information in classical economic terms. Often there is no incentive for private investment in public goods because there is no way to make a profit. In some of these cases, the government steps in and becomes the provider. But there is a very large market for information without the government having to become a creator or publisher. Some legal scholars argue that we should instead call information a “common-pool resource.”
By thinking of information through the traditional property metaphor, we restrict ourselves to a rhetorical framework that views information as a limited, depletable, and excludable resource. This framework leads to solutions that enhance the privatization of information. Information becomes the exclusive property of individuals and corporations and ownership rights are given protection by the courts.
In his latest book, “The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind” (available in your favorite bookstore or as a free download), James Boyle, professor of Law at Duke University, calls the privatization of public land the “first enclosure” and argues that we are currently going through a second enclosure — “an intellectual enclosure of the mind.” This is also a powerful metaphor since science is an iterative process, building upon prior discoveries and correcting past mistakes. Minds need to be open.
The book is a lively read that sums up many of Boyle’s older and more academic writings on information as property.
So if property is such a bad metaphor for information, what metaphor should replace it?
Boyle believes that what is needed is a new way of thinking about information; a new ethos similar to environmentalism, which aligned disparate groups like farmers, duck hunters, and birdwatchers into a coalition for protecting natural resources. Without an overarching ethos, Boyle worries that a narrow view of information based on the property metaphor will prevail. As a result, science (and the benefits it creates for society) will suffer.