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Inception of Ideas: Lessons for the Copyright Hungry

An idea can transform the world and re-write all the rules.
Which is why I have to steal it

– Dom Cobb (from the film ‘Inception’)

It is not often one quotes Hollywood movies in the context of copyright law. But this particular dialogue from the film Inception is striking for its accuracy and (perhaps inadvertently) imparts a valuable lesson on the essence of copyright – that ideas are not protected and the closer you hold them to your chest, the less creativity you will emanate.


The film revolves around a group of individuals who are skilled in the art of ‘extraction’, which involves stealing valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious of the target, when he or she is in a dream state. Eventually, the team (led by ‘Don Cobb’) conspires to do the opposite and plants an idea in someone’s mind for a selfish motive. But the basic premise provides enough to chew on.

People cling to their ideas. Christopher Nolan (the director) seems to be acutely aware of this fact.  Whether or not it was the intended message, it became plainly obvious by the end of the film that the hoarding of ideas serves little purpose.  Let us unleash the Dom Cobbs of the world into the minds of dreamers. Let us extract all ideas (good, bad and ugly) and create a common pool from which to evolve meaningful expressions. Let us accelerate innovation and creativity instead of letting ideas rot in idleness.

Some would contend that the mere existence of an idea comes with a priority right to express it in a certain way (to the exclusion of others). But is that the purpose of copyright law? Nobody can stake a claim to an idea and indeed, there can be no ‘theft’ of ideas. Copyright is not a monopoly right in the way patent law is. Instead, it seeks to encourage people to create new expressions from crude ideas. There is no greater proof of this than the Copyright Clause of the US Constitution, which empowers Congress “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.” Of course, ideas that are expressed in a crystalline form are subject to copyright, but the ‘parent idea’ is free for the taking.

The motivational speaker Paul Arden has a useful adage in this respect – ‘Don’t Covet Your Ideas’, he says, in his book  It’s Not How Good Your Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be. In it, he suggests that it is always better to give away your ideas for free and stay hungry for new ones. Here are a few interesting extracts sourced from Lifehacker:

  • Give away everything you know and more will come back to you.
  • The problems with hoarding is you end up living off your reserves. Eventually you’ll become stale.
  • If you give away everything you have, you are left with nothing. This forces you to look, to be aware, to replenish.
  • Ideas are open knowledge. They are out there floating by on the ether. You just happened to pick them up.

You might not agree with everything he says, but there are some useful tips for anyone looking tap into the pool of creativity and produce something meaningful. Let us share ideas willingly, so that one day we can dip into it ourselves.

Image from the Deconism Gallery under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

A modified version of this post was first published on SpicyIP

About Amlan Mohanty

Amlan is a lawyer based in India. He engages in research, writing, speaking and teaching at the intersection of technology, law and policy.