Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Half Life of Knowledge

I know that I am coming to this meme late, however it is central to understanding intellectual property. The common statement is that knowledge has a half life. It is easy to argue against this simplistic statement, and I would state it slightly differently to capture the underlying idea. The value of knowledge, or for that matter any intellectual property, has a half life, and by value, I mean monetizable value. There may be a lot of value in common knowledge, but it is difficult to use it to gain some advantage that results in a large pile of cash because it is common and shared by all.

It is the long term fate of intellectual property to become common knowledge, it is rightful that this is the case. Most importantly, it is better for the intellectual property to become free and commonly shared, because the alternative is for it to languish and be forgotten.

A good example is Mickey Mouse. It is rumored that copyright has been extended in the USA principally at the behest of The Disney Corporation who wants to keep all the rights to their creations since the company was founded in the 1920's. The problem is that because Disney keep such a tight control on Mickey Mouse and friends he is being forgotten and the brand is being devalued. If Disney would only let go, others could broadcast the cartoons and advertise the brand at no expense to Disney.

Serious Intellectual Property like patents can also languish if they are too tightly controlled or sequestered for too long. One way this can happen is that the tight control forces the rest of us to look for alternatives, and when we find alternatives, the original idea loses value.

So this is the point. Intellectual property loses value over its life whether we want it to or not. It is better to accept this as a fact and acknowledge that Intellectual Property should become common and shared by all, because as a society we all gain from it. Lock it up and we lose it.

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