Friday, February 17, 2012

Ownership in a World of Intangibles

Rebecca Skloot's Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks should be required reading for aspiring public historians and medical ethicists alike. It weaves together the story of scientific discovery, the history of American race relations and socioeconomic inequality, and a profile of a colorful family whose members' unique voices  lend human authenticity to a larger enterprise.

But aside from doing all of these things so well, the story raises questions about ownership, innovation, and capitalism that resonate across a myriad of contemporary debates. One of the biggest debates revolves around ownership of personal data.  When we post personal data to the internet, do host companies, providing us with that posting service, have the right to share or sell that data?  There are movements afoot, such as this one in the EU, to provide users with more control over their personal data, along with the "right to be forgotten." Some would take ownership a step further, giving users the right to sell their data to companies in exchange for money or favors.

To me, this feels like a form of prostitution which should probably be legal, but still feels yucky.  Back in the world of medical ethics, to me, at least, the issues seem clearer.  You are the owner of your tissue up until it leaves your body, but once it leaves your body, no one should be allowed to "own" it, in the sense of exerting full rights over it and garnering compensation for any further innovative work done on it.  Like other natural resources, tissues can be modified and traded but should not be owned exclusively once they are floating around in the world. (For that reason, gene patenting makes no sense to me.)

The world works best when everyone is allowed to be as creative as possible and to live comfortably off the fruits of their labor.  That doesn't mean that people should be able to steak out bridges, like trolls, and collect tolls every time someone happens upon the thing they've claimed.  The more complex our society becomes, the more important I believe concepts such as "open source" and systems like Creative Commons licenses become.  I hope their influence can spread broadly to protect a world where the lines between the "real" and the "intangible" grow thinner and more pixelated every day.

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