Defending Your Rights

Before launching into the question of numerical identity, let’s take a brief detour to consider the question of why a creator deserves credit, including public recognition and royalties. John Locke (1632-1704) maintained that property rights are natural rights. The way we acquire a property right is through labor. As Locke said, since we own our own bodies, and our bodies do the labor, we mix our labor with raw material (he had in mind nature, since he was thinking about land mostly). In this way, what we produce becomes our property.

Some have extended Locke’s view to include intellectual property, including industrial design. The creator of a new design mixes her labor with materials, therefore acquiring a right to what she’s produced. By mixing their labor with 403 LEGO bricks, Sakuretsu and Masashi Togami would acquire property rights to what they produce. So is what they produce a model made of plastic bricks?

Does Matter Matter?

Consider a relatively simple case. When I was around twelve years old, I designed and built my own LEGO spaceship, mostly from circa-1979 parts from LEGO sets 487,493, and 891. When I put my LEGO bricks away during my dark age, the model went into a cardboard box, on top of a pile of loose bricks. Twenty-five years later, I retrieved the box from my parents’ attic to present the contents to my then-five-year-old son, only to discover the intact spaceship sitting within. Now, how do I know that the spaceship I uncovered in 2007 is the same spaceship I built in 1982?

One answer is that it’s made of the same pieces. I know they’re the same pieces, because the box remained unopened for twenty-five years (unless, surprisingly, my parents secretly snuck up to the attic to play with my old LEGO bricks). This is the same answer one could give for a dining room table that’s been in your family for generations: it’s made of the same wood.

Aristotle (384-322 все) was one of the first philosophers to pay close attention to the identity of objects. For him, the individual physical object is a substance, which is distinct from, say, a quality. A particular dark bley 1 X 2 brick lying on the floor is a substance, but dark bley (by itself) isn’t a substance, it’s a quality. So when we’re dealing with inanimate objects like LEGO spaceships, they are substances. Aristotle called the stuff that makes up the physical object its “matter.” For our purposes, the matter of LEGO substance is plastic ABS bricks. So what makes my circa 1982 spaceship the same substance as the one I discovered in a box in 2007 is that it’s made of the same matter, correct?

Not so fast: there are a few problems that complicate the picture somewhat. It seems that material composition comes in degrees. What if I take the spaceship out of the box in 2007 and replace one or two pieces, perhaps with new blocks that are of the same type, but shinier? Now the spaceship I’m holding is made of slightly different matter; so am I holding a new spaceship? Probably not. One or two changed pieces doesn’t change the identity of the ship. But if I replace many bricks, or even all of them, one by one, might I be holding a new ship? It seems as if the amount of matter I change might make a difference at some point. This possibility becomes more distinct if I imagine my five-year-old son (a LEGO prodigy in this hypothetical scenario), carefully taking the worn 1982-ship pieces one by one as I set them aside and meticulously joining them together to construct a spaceship that is built precisely to the specifications of the 1982 ship. At the end of the process he and I would be holding identical-looking ships, except mine would be shinier. Which is the original 1982 spaceship? If it’s the one he’s holding, when did mine stop being the original 1982 spaceship?

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