The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.
― William Gibson
I live in the future.
It’s beautiful here, can’t wait til you arrive. Hey could I ask you a huge favor? Could you steal my intellectual property?
I know that might sound weird given the world that you live in. I’m sure you do a whole bunch of tiptoeing about to avoid stealing other people’s intellectual property. You worry about copyright strikes when you film movie reviews. When you want to reimagine a popular song you cross your eyes and stick out your tongue so everyone knows it’s parody. When you consider what pharmaceutical treatments to research you only explore those that could be patented — if you found a way to treat cancer with dandelion leaves wow would you be disappointed.
You truly live in the dark ages.
Those of us in the future sadly shake our heads in much the same slow, perplexed way as you do when someone describes the medical practices of the 19th century. Can I offer you a leech?
It’s not that we’re better people than you over here. We’re much the same. We just know how to do something that you don’t. We know how to give away our ideas.
You might think that sounds simple. Isn’t that the default? I mean, when business secrets escape to a competitor we call that a leak, as though good ideas are like a high pressure gas in a punctured vessel. Aren’t hundreds of billions of dollars spent annually to maintain the hermetic seal? How could it be hard to give ideas away?
Of course, it’s not. People will take your good ideas once they recognize them, and those ideas will proliferate whether you want them to or not. Your economists have known this for centuries. The real problem isn’t the spreading of good ideas. Those are viruses wealthy in r naught. It’s the making them in the first place.
And that’s the second thing your economists have known — the physics of ideas is weird.
If air followed the physics of ideas it would have strange behavior. An airtight box placed in a field would seem to cause new air molecules to spawn inside it. The box would increase in pressure until it burst its seal and began to leak into the exterior. If this were possible you can imagine the heyday physicists and engineers would have building machines to harness this source of infinite energy. Imagine planes and boats and cars all powered by these bursting boxes spawning pressurized air. And of course, that’s sort of exactly what economists and legislators did with ideas: they built boxes.
Lay enough of these idea boxes about so new ideas spawn inside of them and eventually they’ll burst into the rest of society, benefiting everyone.
These boxes are real, you know them as copyright law and patent protection and trade secrets.
And what do they do? It’s pretty simple honestly, they give the people that find the ideas a piece of their upside. With just this, the possibility of a reward proportional to the magnitude of the idea, people have a reason to create.
And, in the end, the copyright enters the public domain, the patent expires, and you can find the trade secret on the midterms. For the economist and legislator, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. The box has burst, the idea has leaked into the rest of society, benefiting everyone.
And that’s fine. No really I mean it. It’s just fine, and I don’t wanna make you feel bad and I know that it’s what you’re used to, but doesn’t it just feel a bit inelegant?
Can’t you feel the misfirings? The patent which doesn’t find its usecase until 20 years after its expiry. The fanfic whose sprawling community of authors can’t make a dime (much less a movie) based on the universe they built. The formula for insulin locked behind a three hundred dollar price tag for the next decade despite costing pennies to manufacture.
And that’s what we figured out over here. You want ownership, so you can extract a fee on each sale. We want application, because we get paid for impact.
There’s one simple trick that your monopolist doesn’t want you to know.
If you can design systems that reliably monetarily thank people for their impact, then they won’t need boxes anymore. They’ll be able to do their work in the open, building on one another’s ideas, achieving unparalleled velocity of innovation, impact, and returns. And that’s what we figured out over here. We call it “retroactive funding”, but you can call it whatever you want. It’s a grand mechanism of conversation and coordination and consensus that allows us to credibly fund contribution. It’s why we give our ideas away.
As for me? I’m part of the swarm that helped to build that mechanism for retroactive funding of public goods. How do I get paid? Well, do you think that the mechanism for funding public goods considers itself to be a public good? Do you think it emitted gobs of thanks to those of us that placed the cogs? To avoid inciting a gold rush, I’ll let you find the answer.
Thank you so much to Kevin Owocki, Rob Morris, and Joel Miller for your review and thoughtful comments