In the modern world, especially in Western nations, knowledge has been treated as something that can be owned. Therefore, the same property rights one has toward other persons and objects also apply to knowledge.

However, there is a rather large problem with this framework. Knowledge is a non-physical while objects are physical. A fairly reasonable argument can be made that because of this difference, treating knowledge as property is a categorical error. Of course, anyone making this argument must also propose an alternative framework.

Although plenty of people critic modern intellectual property law, they all (to my knowledge) still frame the issue as one of property rights. For example, supporters of Creative Commons all argue that knowledge can be owned, but should not.

Can anyone think of a conception of knowledge in a way such that property rights do not apply?

EDIT: It has been suggested that this question may also be an answer to my question. Although it does touch on the issue, it does not fully explore the core problem. The closest it gets is when the top answer says,

A common view is that due to its reproducibility (e.g. "theft" does not deprive the owner of the use of his/her creation or invention) "intellectual property" lacks a crucial feature of being "property".

This is what I meant when I said that it can be argued that "treating knowledge as property is a categorical error". The problem is that making this argument invites the question 'How should knowledge be treated if it cannot be property?' I have never seen someone answer this question, and I am hoping someone here may be able to point me to someone who does.


2 Answers 2


The question has several incorrect presuppositions. While it is true that knowledge seems to fall in the category of "abstract object", and is therefore arguably non-physical, this is no obstacle to property rights. This is because "rights", "property" and "law" are also all abstract objects. To even have the discussion be relevant, one must presuppose the reality of abstractions. Once one does that, there is no further obstacle to applying the abstractions "property" and "rights" to the abstraction "knowledge", within the abstraction of the "law".

A further presupposition is that once one accepts the existence of something (or at least of something physical) then "property rights" MUST accrue to it. But there are all sorts of things, both physical and abstract which are not property. There are a lot of ways to think about our societal structures and relationships that do not start with "property rights" as a key presupposition. Three alternatives, for example, would be communitarian ethics: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07393149608429774?journalCode=cnps20 Virtue ethics: https://utorontopress.com/us/love-and-objectivity-in-virtue-ethics-3, and Deep Ecology https://green.harvard.edu/news/daring-care-deep-ecology-and-effective-popular-environmentalism


To the extent that knowledge is property at all, knowledge is community property. It is built on preceding knowledge that the community has developed, and its only use is to expand the knowledge of the community. 'Private' knowledge does not exist, for the same reasons that private languages do not exist; it's senseless even to talk about it.

Of course, a community can (and frequently does) establish that some knowledge can be hidden or kept secret, while other knowledge can be restricted to the use of some person(s) in some venue(s). The aim of that is to ensure other rights: the right to privacy, the right to produce property from knowledge, the right of security... Intellectual property rights, in this sense are not really property rights, but are a license from the community to control the use of knowledge in order to protect property that is derived from that knowledge. In this sense, an author might be given control over particular knowledge in order to realize a profit from the sale of a book (where the book is the real, derived property being protected); likewise, the community might grant a corporation control over scientific knowledge it has developed so that the initial profits from using that knowledge go to the corporation. In both cases the knowledge is still community property; it's merely restricted for a time in recognition of the effort put into creating it.

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