92. Can A Person Own An Idea?

On past episodes, we have talked about property rights and why they are so important. It’s not too hard to understand who owns a piece of physical property, but what about ideas? Does one single person own an idea, or is intellectual property, as it is sometimes called, an entirely different kind of property?


Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

Connor: Hey, Brittany.

Brittany: Hi, Connor.

Connor: Today I wanna talk about something that is probably a little bit controversial for some people, which of course, that’s why people listen to this podcast. we talk about fun ideas. You know, it’s something that a lot of people disagree on, and that is, can, can a person own an idea? And, what this really boils down to is the idea of what’s called intellectual property. And, you know, that’s a kind of complex terms. So before we dive in, I want to describe what that means. So, intellectual means it has to do with your mind. It’s something mental. it’s something who, that you think up that your mind works on. It’s not a physical piece of property like a, you know, land or your car or a book. and so it comes from your mind. Instead, of course, property is, a thing, right? There’s physical property, tangible property, something you can touch and manipulate and change. It’s a kind of resource taking, like a rock, and chipping away at it. You own that rock, you know, and you, you’ve changed it. intellectual property is more, you know, an idea. It’s a thought. It’s something that you’ve created with your,  mind. And so those are kind of the, two difference. Like, think of a book, right? The TuttleTwins books, the story, the ideas in the book that even the, all the words, used in the book in that order, right? Like, you could jumble up the words and then it’s a totally different book. Yeah, yeah. It’s not the same book anymore. But if, you were to take a Tuttlebook and, write those same exact words in the same, you know, sentences and, say, you know, maybe Bob does that, and Bob’s like, Hey, I just wrote a book, was like, okay, well, you took the words that I thought of, and in the sentences that I did, and that’s something I did with my mind. And, you’re now claiming that as your own a song could be the same thing, right? A band coming up with the lyrics and the tune, and then someone else, you know, making it their own. I watched a movie, it was kinda a fun movie. I’m trying to think what it was called. The Beatles one. Do you remember this? Where the guy wakes up and The Beatles?

Brittany: Oh, yesterday, Isn’t it called? Isn’t it just called Yesterday? Yes, It’s so good.

Connor: Yeah. And so this guy wakes up and he is now living in like a parallel universe where the Beatles never existed, but this guy’s a musician and he knows how to, you know, play all the Beatles songs. And so he starts playing ’em, and everyone thinks they’re his right because there’s no Beatles, no one in that parallel universe knows any different, and so similar, like a song, the lyrics, the melody that is, you know, intellectual, property, a movie, right? The script, the order of those words. and so when we talk about stories or when we talk about songs, the question today I wanna talk with you about is, can a person really own those things? Can, can someone own an idea something that’s not physical? So, Brittany, what are your thoughts? Let’s start kind of high level. What are your thoughts on intellectual property?

Brittany: this is a really hard one. It’s funny because even people within like, the same, like in other individuals, even other libertarians, some people might say, even those people can’t agree. Like, there’s so many different opinions. I tend to believe that intellectual property and regular property are very different. I do tend to believe that you don’t necessarily own an idea, right? That, you don’t have some sort of a one, good example of this would be the song Happy Birthday, right? Everybody sings that song. Everybody knows that song. Well, I worked at a restaurant for a while and we were not allowed to sing to people for their birthday. You know why? Because somebody owned the intellectual property, they owned the copyright of that song. So if we had sung that song to a table and a lawyer heard us, or maybe like whoever owns the right happy birthday of their lawyer heard us, they could have sued us and potentially put us out of business. All because we sang a song that everybody knows, right? I mean, other, languages have been seeing the same song with different lyrics. So it, it’s so silly. The other thing is, people can copyright words. So there’s even a word that if you say a word or use a word, you’d have to pay somebody. Now, not everyone prosecutes these right now, everyone prosecutes the people that are disobeying these intellectual property laws, but they can get,

Connor: Let’s pause real quick. Prosecute means that the government is going to, you know, threaten you with a fine. Or that’s when they’re saying, Hey, we’re coming after you now because you violated this law.

Brittany: Yep. And, you don’t, you don’t wanna be on the bad side of that because it gets a lot harder to win. So I think there’s a lot of problems with intellectual property. I think it’s used for a lot of people to abuse it, but I also think we’re, almost less off when people try to own property, because that means that that ideas are shared less frequently, right? We want, especially if you’re a musician, if I write a song, I want people to hear that song. I want people to be sharing and spreading that song. I don’t want it to only stay with maybe a certain amount of people because they don’t have access to it. They can’t hear it. So I think that our intellectual property laws as they stand today, are probably too strict. I know that, again, I know this is very controversial, but I would say that, yes, that you can’t really own an idea.

Connor: Now, this is interesting because it’s one thing for someone else to, you know, share a song that you’ve done. Let’s stick with the song example. It’s one thing for them to share it or maybe add a totally different twist and kind of say, oh, here’s the value that I’ve created, right? I kind of, I’m a cover, I’m doing a cover song, right? I know, Lindsay Sterling is a very, famous, you know, violinist and she’ll, play, a lot of songs that other people are familiar with, and she kinda adds her own twist. Or, oh, what’s the group in Canada walk off the Earth?

Brittany: Love Walk Off the Earth. They’re great. Yeah,

Connor: They’re a very fun music group. They have a lot of YouTube videos. They’re family-friendly. and so what they’ll do is they’ll take songs you’ve heard on the radio and they’ll sing them and they’ll play ’em, and they’ll kind of add their own twist. And so that’s where I think it’s more acceptable, which is why I think it’s legal, right, is cuz they’re kind of, creating their own, you know, kind of differences and they’re kind of making it their own. I think where a lot of people struggle, including myself in the past and a little bit in the present is when someone is kind of like stealing, intellectual,

Brittany: I brought that up.

Connor: What I mean is passing it off as their own. Imagine if someone took a TuttleTwins book and they, you know, photocopied it and they went to a printer and they printed it and changed the name and said, it’s not Connor Boyack. It’s, you know, Bob Peterson. And, he started presenting to other people that he is the author of the Tuttletwins books, that he wrote the books. That’s where I think it’s like, okay, look, it’s one thing if you were to like, take my ideas and, and or the words or the pages and like put them on a website or share them in a video or whatever.

Brittany: Credit you, right? But say by Connor Boyack.

Connor: Right? That’s still credit. Then I’m like, okay, well you’re like, you said, you’re helping spread the word. Maybe those people will then want the books and come, you know, buy them from us. So thanks for helping spread the word. But when someone takes off my name and slaps theirs and claims that all of the work I put into it was actually done by them, that’s, fraud, right? They are doing something wrong because they’re lying to people about where that intellectual property came from. I’ve shared before on this podcast, Brittany, that I am a huge fan of Shark Tank.

Brittany: Yes,

Connor: I’ve watched every episode of Shark Tank over the years. I just love seeing, you know, the Sharks do their silly thing, right? Mark Cuban is just aggressive and, arrogant, and so is Mr. Wonderful.

Brittany: Sounds like American Idol. Agree to the judges have their personalities.

Connor: Yeah. and of course, they’re on tv, so they’re playing up their personalities. I don’t care so much about that site. I love seeing entrepreneurs who are prepared. They’ve memorized their pitches, they’ve created, creative pitches, you know, they’re really, competing to try and get sharks to invest. The one thing I can’t stand about watching Shark Tank is so often the question one of the sharks will ask to this entrepreneur is, do you have a patent? Right? Because what they’re really asking is like, like even something silly. There was one guy on there who created like a slightly different kind of sponge, right? And, they were very curious, do you have a patent? And what does that mean? A patent is when the government says this idea you came up with for this product, like a chair or a wheel or a, you know, little widget, this idea you came up with, we are gonna let you own that idea and you’re gonna be able to produce these widgets or these things. And if anyone else tries to do this, you can use the government to punish them. You can take them to court, right? You can sue them, you can make them pay you a bunch of money and the government will be on your side. And it’s like, look, I get, if it’s something extremely complex and, it’s very clear that no one else could like really arrive at this same thing except for in the precise way that you did it, right? If it’s like, Hey, all this research and all this kind of stuff and, we landed here, I can kind of see, okay, a patent kind of protects that, but you can get a patent for like, oh yeah, we have a sponge and we added a little ridge to the edge and now no one else can make sponges with ridges on the edge. Even though like anyone could do that, right? You could just look at that thing and reverse engineer it, which means you could like figure out backwards how to make it by looking at the end result and being like, oh, I’ll just take the sponge out of the store and, you know, add a little ridge on the edge of, plastic or whatever. And, so when anyone can do something like that, that’s when I can’t stand intellectual property because what Mark Cuban or the other sharks are saying is, oh, did you get the government to give you kind of this permission slip or this blessing so we can punish anyone else who has a similar idea? And, when we think of innovation, right? Innovation is like experimentation. People are like, Ooh, I like that sponge with a ridge. What if I added two ridges, right? Or what if I add a ridge? It was a little bit shorter. And like other people can experiment like that and, borrow ideas and make them better and improve. And when, when instead we put the government in the middle and be like, oh, I’m gonna come after you. If any of you try and experiment with my idea, because clearly, it’s too close to, you know, this widget, this sponge that I have a patent for. That’s one intellectual property, as you said, I think you said the words you used were like, the words are, or the laws are too rigid.

Brittany: Yes.

Connor: You know, I think that’s true because it allows people to go punish other people just for having similar ideas. It’s one thing to like, you know, take, you know, I love Apple. I’m using an Apple laptop for this podcast. I’m a big fan of the product.

Brittany: I just ordered. My iPhone 12 today, actually.

Connor: So there you go. I, yeah, run away a few months, but I’m, close behind. so I’m a big Apple fan, but you know what, I couldn’t stand. Apple just a few months ago sued a company that had a pair-shaped logo, a logo’s like the graphic. Really?

Brittany: I didn’t hear about this.

Connor: I think the company might have even been called Pear, like the fruit pair, but, I believe it was like a pair-shaped logo if I remember right. But Apple sent their lawyers after this little company who had the audacity to have a fruit-shaped logo. And Apple claimed, oh, but you know, this is our intellectual property to have a fruit-shaped logo like, that’s when it’s like, guys, this is crazy, right? Like, you’re using the government to punish people for having ideas that you feel are like your own. So, intellectual property, it’s like as a big issue, there’s lots of division, but I think if we kind of took it down into some of these little, like little areas, we could probably have a lot more agreement because I think people would agree. Yeah, taking a TuttleTwin’s book and slapping your name on it, when that’s not yours, that that’s fraud. You shouldn’t be allowed to do that. You should, you know, be able to be punished or Connor should be able to sue you or whatever. But if, someone were to just take the TuttleTwins book and, you know, use, several of the sentences in their own book, but then they’ve kind of added their own twist, right? Like, I shouldn’t be able to go after them just because they borrowed, you know, some words or a paragraph or whatever. Like they’ve, added a twist. Just like walk off the earth, we’ll take, you know, a popular song and add their twist, and then, you know, we think a lot about that original artist. It benefits them because that band Walk off the earth is out there singing their song and making them even more popular. So I just, I’m with you, Brittany. I think I don’t think our current laws have kind of settled in the right area where it makes sense to protect certain types or instances of intellectual property, but in other cases, it’s kind of being abused.

Brittany: Yeah. And we saw that. So in Utah, when I was, I don’t wanna say a kid, I was probably a teenager cause I’m also from Utah, from your state, there was a company called Clean Flicks that I remember my family used a lot because there’s a lot of family-friendly people in Utah. We have big families there, and a lot of times we want to see movies, but we didn’t wanna have to hear the square words, right? Or maybe if there was inappropriate scenes or maybe a lot of islands, we just didn’t wanna subject ourselves to that. So Clean Flick had this really cool idea where it was like a video rental place, which doesn’t really exist anymore. You’d go rent a, VHS or a DVD, but they would buy a copy. So they owned a copy of whatever DVD that they bought or whatever video cassette they bought, and they would edit out the bad things. So if you didn’t wanna hear square words, they’d edit out those. If you didn’t wanna see certain things in the movie, they would edit those out for you. Well, then the directors of the movie, specifically Robert Redford, who hilariously enough also lives in Utah, which is why he got so mad about it, he sued the company for saying like no, you’re messing with my piece of art, right? You’re, ruining my piece of art. And it’s so funny to me because here you had families who maybe wouldn’t have seen some of these movies otherwise. I know my family certainly wouldn’t have seen like a rated art movie, but because they had edited out the stuff that made it rated r my family was able to see movies that they wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise. So this was exposing people’s movies to a bunch of new people, but because it was somebody else’s intellectual property, they weren’t allowed to do it. The company ended up going out of business. So this is something that, it’s not even just hypothetical, this is something we already know. People will use the law, they will use, you know, the force of government to go after people and that destroys innovation.

Connor: I think that’s exactly right. And it’s an important lesson that we need to keep in mind. because it’s one thing to have a physical piece of property that you can possess yourself. No one else can possess it. It’s only in one place at one time. And so you can defend it if someone tries to steal it. But an idea for, you know, a sponge with a ridge, can exist in lots of places. That idea can be in my head, it can also be in someone else’s head and someone else can, you know, easily invent or come up with the same thing. And, so it’s important to make sure that we’re not allowing the government to let people punish one another and use the government kind of as a weapon against other people, which really kind of harms the free market. It discourages innovation. and so it’s kind of interesting to think about, right? Like a song, like I remember back in the day that none of the kids will remember this, but I’m sure the adults will. I remember Napster, right?

Brittany: Napster, yes.

Connor: People could just download any MP3 they wanted. And of course, the music producers didn’t like this. The studios didn’t like this because

Brittany: artists didn’t like it, yeah.

Connor: Yeah, they weren’t getting paid and people weren’t buying CDs. And, that money would then go to the producers and the artists, instead people were downloading and sharing songs. But so it is controversial, right? It’s like once a song is, created and out there, should people be able to access it for free? you know, if, Tuttletwins books were all-digital format, should someone be able to go upload them to their website and, you know, free Tuttletwinsbooks.com and rather than me selling them to people, right? They just provide them for free to everyone. Is that right? Or is that wrong? If it’s just an idea, you know, should you be able to, should you not? Like, these are really interesting questions because it gets to the idea of what is property but also what is the proper role of government. Should the government be able to allow people to punish other people just for having a, you know, a similar idea? These are things I think we need to think a lot about. check out the show notes page for today, guys. Tuttletwins.com/podcast. Thanks as always for joining us. We appreciate you guys listening. Until next time, Brittany, we’ll talk to you later.

Brittany: Talk to you later.


Interested in more content?

Check out our latest email…

George Washington: Global Provocateur

“Oh crap! That’s due tomorrow?!” – Thomas Jefferson, July 3, 1776 (probably) Happy 3rd of July! That imaginary quote always makes me laugh. In part because I’m a writer who knows a thing or two about deadlines sneaking up on you, but also because I like to think about the humanness of historical figures.  One of the things that history books get so wrong is that they present history as just a jumble of names and dates without giving kids any reason to care about the things they’re learning. They feel no attachment to the people or events, and often forget things the second they’re done taking the test.  You guys really seemed to like the story about John Adams writing to his wife, Abigail, and, as I suspected, many of you didn’t know that independence was actually declared on the 2nd of July; not the 4th! (I didn’t know

Read More »

From the trusted team behind the Tuttle Twins books, join us as we tackle current events, hot topics, and fun ideas to help your family find clarity in a world full of confusion.

Want More?

The Tuttle Twins children’s book series is read by hundreds of thousands of families across the country, and nearly a million books (in a dozen languages!) are teaching children like yours about the ideas of a free society.

Textbooks don’t teach this; schools don’t mention it.

It’s up to you—and our books can help. Check out the Tuttle Twins books to see if they’re a fit for your family!