The property of intellectual property

by Curtis Lee Fulton

Brooke Gladstone, on last week’s On The Media podcast, on the property of intellectual property in the digital age:

It turns out that the synonyms for “property” essentially fall into two color families. Predictably, the first are words related to possession, as in ownership, title, claim, stake. The second are words that link property to the nature of a thing, as in aura, effect, flavor, feeling or character, quality, virtue or quirk.

Now, here’s the interesting thing:  The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the second meaning actually emerged first. Eight hundred years ago or so, property’s meaning was pretty much related to the essential nature of something, as in it’s the property of water to conform to the shape of the vessel it’s in. The fact is property didn’t come to mean possession until the 17th century. But the link between the two meanings is clear. Something that’s special, something that is one’s own is something we possess.

Now our world runs on property. As the founders understood, it’s a powerful engine of creativity that benefits us all. But, like water, the essential nature of property must ultimately conform to the vessel it’s one. Once we dwelled in a brick-and-mortar world. Now, as poet Kenneth Goldsmith observed, we swim in a digital ocean.