Saturday, January 21, 2006

Applied Aesthetic Metaphysics

A quick thought, inspired by the discussion here: many people apparently believe that "when you create something, you own it." Now, this has various ludicrous consequences when applied to mental creations. (Is it theft to hum a tune?) But we might avoid this problem by appealing to those philosophers who claim that melodies and such are discovered rather than created.

After all, we normally wouldn't hold that people get to own whatever they discover. (Einstein doesn't own the theory of relativity. Columbus doesn't own America.) So, if reasoning in the metaphysics of aesthetics leads us to conclude that artists discover pre-existing abstract forms, rather than "creating" their artworks, then this might significantly affect our legal and political philosophy, at least insofar as intellectual property is concerned. (Has anyone noticed this before?)


  1. Potentially. I do think we need to organize our institutions appropriately so that artists are properly rewarded for their contributions (just like researchers and academics are). But I'm not convinced that property-rights extremism is the way to go here. In fact, I'm pretty well convinced that it isn't. I'll write more about this topic in future. For now, I'm more interested in the "hey, look, metaphysics is actually important!" aspect of the discussion :-)

  2. Richard,
    Does this mean we would have music universities (with everyone on fixed salaries) for pumping out the worlds supply of new music?

  3. By the way i think in practice some legal purchasing with a rampant plagarism industry seems to be utility optimizing.

    a good portion of richer people buy the product, see it live and buy the t-shirt (and this covers development costs) and a large number of poor people get it at basically it's marginal cost (whatever that is).

    Of course the threat is that the plagarism will wipe out the industry if rich people start getting free copies also
    Or that the industry will get together to wipe out the plagarists in order to profit maximize and even worse act as a monopoly to reduce output.

  4. If I get the gist of the argument...

    Would the design of a new car (a recognition that a certain arrangements of parts will meet performance parameters {P1, P2, P3 . . . Pn} that would appeal to a large variety of customers count as an "invention" or a "discovery"?

    What, really, are the distinguishing characteristics between inventions and discoveries anyway?

    Alonzo Fyfe
    The Atheist Ethicist

  5. I don't think there's much difference between creation and discovery. I like the justification of intellectual rights given by the U.S. Constitution:

    Congress has the power to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

    I think this is exactly the right approach: people have rights to their writings, discoveries, and works, not because they automatically own it, but because it's the only way society can successfully promote "the Progress of Science and useful Arts". Law isn't competent to govern questions of who 'owns' lyrics; it is competent, however, to govern who has undergone the legal procedures relevant to copyright protections, and what those procedures are.

    I think there's too much tendency to think of rights in a way that takes property rights as its paradigm.

  6. Yes, I think the U.S. Constitution has it right. (Pity their Supreme Court doesn't bother to uphold it, as described in Lessig's book.)

    "Does this mean we would have music universities (with everyone on fixed salaries) for pumping out the worlds supply of new music?"


    Alonzo: "Would the design of a new car (a recognition that a certain arrangements of parts will meet performance parameters {P1, P2, P3 . . . Pn} that would appeal to a large variety of customers count as an "invention" or a "discovery"?"

    I'm guessing Platonists would call that design a 'discovery' too. (Though perhaps physical assemblies are creations? And particular musical performances too, I suppose.)

    I think the idea is supposed to be that 'discoveries' identify something that's already in existence, "there for the finding", so to speak, whereas 'creations' bring something new into existence. I haven't done any real study in the metaphysics of aesthetics however, so take my speculations with a large grain of salt. (Off the top of my head, I think it's plausible to say that people can create only tokens, not types. If true, that would spell trouble for any absolutist theory of intellectual property rights.)

    I'm not sure whether this should be an important distinction or not, but it certainly is on the "you own what you create" theory of property rights!

  7. > like saying it's okay (morally) for people to buy stuff as long as everyone doesn't buy stuff all the time (because then that would be morally wrong).

    yes, morals are contextual. Like it is ok for you to eat the food in your families cupboard but not ok for you to eat ALL the food.

    Could the same be said for "shoplifting" stuff?

    In theory but usually things in a shop cost more than zero dollars so in that case probably not.

    > And if so, what limiting amount would that be?

    It will be different for different people but there is no need to perscribe an amount and if you did it would be academic because you dont have that much control over it. My argument is not that you prevent copy right it is just that it is not worthwhile to spend too much effort enforcing it. It can be number 100 on your list of 100 things for the police/government to do.

    > "Does this mean we would have music universities (with everyone on fixed salaries) for pumping out the worlds supply of new music?"

    > No.

    why not?
    If music has value that is not just relative and there is potential to build on previous music research then it starts to look quite a bit like academia. Of couse maybe music is a bit different.

  8. You're assuming that artists own their songs. Which brings us back to the original point of this post, which is that this issue might be dependent upon some fairly abstract issues in the metaphysics of aesthetics.

  9. Depends what you think a "recording" is. Are two copies one and the same recording? If so, being distinct concrete objects, what they have in common is abstract. (And if not, then artists presumably have no claim over the copies they don't own.)

  10. You assume that the only way a person can "rightfully" make money is through the exercise of absolute property rights. I don't believe any such thing. As already explained, I think we need to set up a system which encourages and rewards creative acts (or "aesthetic discoveries", if we decide that's what they are). It's myopic to think that intellectual property rights are the only possible way to do this.

  11. what makes propoerty rights your moral starting point (and thus the hing that doesnt require any sort of justification or isn't considered part of the "practicaly" scenario?)
    Things can be owned - seems a very odd starting point. Much stranger than "god made us valuable" or "desire defines value" or other such initial propositions.

  12. Thanks Derek, yes, that's a succinct way of putting my point.

  13. > The reality that stealing is wrong—to answer your first question.

    Isn't this putting the cart before the horse? stealing is wrong because we recognise property rights not the other way around (and certainly not the circular form of that logic) - for example copyrights to songs run out after a while and then doing exacty the same thing as would be considered stealing just a short while before is totally legitimate because the property right has expired. Or one might consider other things where we dont recognise property rights (let's say certain behaviours or "air" etc) one has to wonder why that is except for pragmatic reasons.

    > And I don't think there should be any doubt that things can be owned.

    My point is that you are using it as a starting point without good reason. Also, that things can be owned doesn't mean all things should be owned or that that ownership should take a particular form.

    > If nothing can be owned then nothing can be stolen.

    I think you are tending towards another of those "scary scenario"'s. This seems to consistantly rely on a mis-conception of the position you are looking at.

  14. hello richard

    there isnt actually that much difference between discovering and inventing. you could say that a bicycle was an invention waiting to happen; or that most drugs are; melodies are probably the same way. (though only the really good ones would be in any sense discoveries).

    intellectual property rights aren't inborn natural laws. they are created. an example is the US Congress recently extending the exclusive property life expectancy of Walt Disney's mascots (mickey and the lot), the lesson of which is that if you are in with the lawmakers, you have property rigths. if you aren't, tough luck.

    there is a spirited debate in the real world regarding intellectual property rights: the question whether the current intellectual property laws give too much power to owners. when it comes to drugs, they certainly do (most of us chickens in the third world cannot afford what western drug companies want to charge).

    best regards


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