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Philosophy

Tokens, Types and Ownership

This post is part of the series Ownership

In a previous post, I explained why being the creator of something does not lead to ownership over it. But suppose that a writer did own a book. Does that help copyright or not? It does not help because the writer only owns a token of the book rather than a type. Since ownership never applies to types, ownership of information is impossible.

A token is always a particular thing. A type is a kind of thing. So that book is a token. Consider the series of books known as the Chronicles of Narnia. When we claim to like these books, we are usually speaking of a type. There are many books that are ” The Chronicles of Narnia” . Each particular book is a token. They are tokens of the same type because the same story is written. So the story is the information, while the particular book is the physical object that has the story inside it.

Now ownership only applies to tokens and never to types. So while each token of the Narnia books is owned by someone or other, the type itself it not owned by anyone. Not only that, but the type cannot be owned by anyone. There are a few reasons for this. First, each physical object is a type in many ways. If ownership of types were possible, then one person would own everything. Second, ownership is a right to control things, but information cannot be controlled as information but only as tokens. Third, the basis for ownership does not supply any reasons for owning types. Since these reasons are independent, it is not possible to own types.

Let’ s suppose that a person owned the Chronicles of Narnia. If that were true, then someone would also own books since each Chronicles of Narnia book is a token of the type ” book” . But each token of ” book” is also a type of ” artifact” something made by someone. Therefore, if it is possible to own Chronicles of Narnia, then it is possible to own ” artifact” . If it is possible to own artifact, then someone either owns it or can claim ownership of it using the means I have already described. But that person would own everything made by everyone. Since that is absurd, ownership of types is impossible.

Ownership is the moral right to control things. But things can only be controlled as tokens. Types as types cannot be controlled. When we claim to control a type, we are really claiming to control all tokens of that type. But while it might be possible to control every token of a type, that does not amount to controlling that type. Suppose that someone memorized the Chronicles of Narnia. In that case, it would be possible for them to create a new copy of the book by speaking it, writing it down or transmitting it in any other way. So a complete control over every physical token does not imply a control over the type.

Finally, there are three basis for ownership: instrumental work, natural needs of human beings and free will. None of them require ownership of types in order to exist. Therefore, there is no positive argument for the ownership of types. Furthermore, ownership of types in any case would conflict with these reasons anyway. For example, if I owned the type ” book” , then it would be possible for me to forbid someone else from writing ” The Chronicles of Narnia” even if they paid for it. I could also forbid someone from sharing a book they read with someone else even if they bought the particular token of that book. Therefore, types cannot be owned.

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