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Without IP, Would There Be a World of Clones?

July 18, 2011

A worry one variously hears about getting rid of the idea of intellectual property is that in such a world most of the world will consist entirely in copies of the really successful thing and therefore there would be no real reward for doing something amazing. All incentive to innovate is lost.

I’ve never really understood this line of thinking because in a world of copies, the unique thing is actually valued more, not less. A system that constantly rewards the unique thing – and it can be anything – while marginalizing mere copies is one we should hope for, and this is called the the free market. Of course the unique thing can be copied too, which means that innovators cannot rest on their laurels but must constantly refine, innovate, work hard, progress, compete to win.

Such a market exists in the world of comedy, where jokes cannot be copyrighted by anyone. Every joke can be told by anyone, anywhere. Some people have tried to sue for joke stealing (and actually one can sue anyone for any reason at all!) but the truth is that jokes circulate freely and enter the public domain as soon as they are heard.

This is precisely what has led to such an interesting world of comedy we have today in which personality, delivery, stamina, vocal quality, and other unique traits, are the most valued thing. The text alone is a small part of what goes into the great acts. Every comedian has the strong incentive to become a unique and even non-copyable act, and this is itself the very basis of stardom.

In the wonderful video below, Conan O’Brien describes how this works. Johnny Carson tried to copy Jack Benny, but eventually bailed out and became his own person. This was when his career took off. David Letterman did the same thing with regard to Carson, but eventually failed at trying to copy and instead did something new. So it was with Conan, who tried to copy Letterman but failed. This failure was the beginning of a new career, a reinvention of self that led to a form of success he never expected.

There are lessons here for understanding the capitalist competitive order. Yes, there is the freedom to copy, but the copy is not where the real market value is to be found. Without the freedom to copy, the learning process gets interrupted. And yet this will not lead to homogeneity but rather the reverse: a relentless process to offer the special thing that no one else offers.

As you watch, see how all his best lines seem to be specially crafted to match his personae and personality alone.

Conan O'Brien Delivers Dartmouth's Commencement Address

 

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