Monday, December 05, 2005

Metaphors underpinning intellectual goods

The question of whether knowledge is property leads to many arguments about intellectual goods such as digital music and software. Some argue that property rights will lead to an efficient and productive market in new ideas, while others contend that such “propertization” will damage the creative community and reduce innovation. Property rights are also debated for wireless spectrum. I believe that one can explore these questions in a less loaded setting by considering the notion of “resource” rather than “property”.

The property fight is not a pretty quarrel, since talking about assets conjures up the heroes and villains of the capitalism vs. socialism debate. It’s in a way an argument about the applicability of old metaphors to new ideas; a metaphor like Knowledge Is Property is important us tools with which to analyze a complex problem, but may also lead us astray if the premises are incorrect. [1]

I stumbled over a less loaded concept while reading Lakoff & Johnson’s book about cognitive science, metaphor and philosophy [1]. They define “Resources” in order to explore the Time Is A Resource metaphor. I think it is instructive to explore the Knowledge Is A Resource metaphor. The Knowledge Is Property metaphor is derived from it, and one can use Knowledge Is A Resource to explore our conceptual models in a less loaded setting than when using Knowledge Is Property.

Lakoff & Johnson give the following schema for the concept of a Resource. The schema tries to characterize what is typically meant by a resource – actually, a non-renewable resource.

The Elements of the Schema:

A Resource
The User of the Resource
A Purpose that requires an amount of the Resource
The Value of the Resource
The Value of the Purpose

This Schema is used in the following conceptual scenario:

The User wants to achieve a Purpose.
The Purpose requires an amount of the Resource.
The User has, or acquired the use of, the Resource.

The User used up an amount of the Resource to achieve the Purpose.

The portion of the Resource used is not longer available to the User.
The Value of the Resource used has been lost to the User.
The Value of the Purpose achieved has been gained by the User.

Given this schema, other concepts are defined relative to it: concepts like Scarcity, Efficiency, Waste, and Savings.

Knowledge is a Resource is a commonly used metaphor. It shows up in sentences like:

Knowledge about how best to respond to that problem is scarce. I need to know more before I decide. She used her knowledge effectively to solve the problem. He squandered his education. These business processes extract and save knowledge, and make it available to other employees. Without a doubt the pursuit of knowledge is worthwhile.
These examples indicate that we commonly treat Knowledge as a (non-renewable) resource.

However, knowledge doesn’t fit the Resource schema very well. It is not non-renewable in the same sense that physical resources are; it’s reasonable to assume that there is no limit to human inventiveness. Knowledge isn’t used up to achieve a purpose; knowledge gained by one User isn’t lost by another. The schema breaks down because the action contemplated (“The User used up an amount of the Resource to achieve the Purpose”) doesn’t match the properties of a knowledge resource.

And yet, we use it. I suspect that we generalize from our day-to-day use of knowledge to achieve a purpose, which is a key property of a Resource, to the notion that knowledge also satisfies the other conditions of Resources as we know them. Instinctive use of Knowledge Is A Resource metaphors may thus lead us astray, particularly to the extent that the Resource schema underpins the Property schema.

A similar mechanism is at work when wireless spectrum is treated as property. As Hatfield and Weiser have argued [3], that the application of the metaphor Spectrum is Property is more complex than often portrayed.

They make essentially two arguments: boundaries can’t be drawn objectively, and market manipulation is likely. First, spectrum doesn’t allow for clear boundaries in the way that real property does since radio wave propagation depends on circumstances (making physical boundaries for spectrum allocations problematic), and signals in adjacent frequency bands interfere with each other (confusing efforts to create frequency boundaries). Second, they argue that “if property rights are granted in a manner that would allow injunctions for trespass, it is quite possible that parties could bring actions solely to threaten an injunction and obtain a license along the lines of the much-criticized patent trolls.”

In this case, the Spectrum is a Resource is questionable because of questions over the very definition of the Resource. If Hatfield and Weiser are correct, the Resource definition is arbitrary.

The next step in this work (in progress) is to collect a corpus of metaphors used to describe knowledge goods by the various participants in the debate. I would not be surprised to find that some of the conflicts are based on irreconcilable metaphors, rather than economics. These metaphors will help map out the conceptual systems in play, which may then lead to ways to resolve – or at least make visible – the essential conflicts.


[1] In this post I’m going to treat knowledge, information and intellectual goods as equivalent. They’re clearly not, but I think the analysis below is sufficiently general to work when “information” or “intellectual good” is substituted for “knowledge”.

[2] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (1998)

[3] Dale Hatfield and Phil Weiser, Property Rights in Spectrum: Taking the Next Step, SSRN, September 30, 2005