Go read my previous post on the subject of intellectual property or else this one won't make sense.
I've been thinking about intellectual property again, and the fact that digital encoding can basically reduce all IP to a number (or set of numbers) makes me think that it's going to be very difficult to enforce copyright laws in the future; basically, extend the effect Napster had on music to everything. This isn't a very profound realization, but the underlying question seems important to me: how can anyone ever claim to own a number?
I was reading a little bit about how radio frequencies are licensed by companies for use but are considered to be "owned" by the public as a whole and administered by the government. If numbers can be considered to be owned by anyone, they should fall into the public domain in the same way that radio frequencies do. But then what? Government-run licensing for companies that want to monopolize certain numbers (such as the number that encodes a specific song in the MP3 format)? Would they have to pay to hold these licenses? How then would they make money, through advertising like a radio station? It just doesn't make any sense.
The end result is that I think we're nearing the end of the period in human history wherein it has been possible to "own" a representation of an idea (through copyright). Inventions and processes that depend on physical constructions will be protectable into the forseeable future (until we have replicators?), but the concept of the copyright will probably disappear by 2050 (my conservative guess). As it is, many societies are incapable of / unwilling to enforce existing copyright treaties, and the difficulties will only grow. Social momentum will eventually overwhelm the existing order, and it will collapse.