Apart from this the building, which occupied one side of the square, was a dull matt slab with mean dark windows and a flat roof. Next to the doors there was a scrappy sign in tarnished metal, screwed into the concrete. “The Exchange of Beautiful Ideas”, it proclaimed, in three centimetre Times Roman.
Robin walked slowly up to the entrance, the shoebox that held his idea resting heavily against his bent arm.
Inside the air was too warm, and uncomfortably dry. There were notice boards with flapping leaflets and schedules. A woman in a nondescript uniform jacket sat behind a reception counter, her eyes fixed on a screen. She did not look up as Robin approached.
“Excuse me,” he said, and then she did look up, with a show of reluctance. “I’ve got an idea that I’d like to -”
“What sort of idea?” said the woman, turning her attention back to her screen, which now cast a blue-green glow onto her face.
Robin hesitated for a moment. He had not expected to have to explain his idea at the reception desk.
“It’s...it’s about how people can be nicer to each other, by -”
“Social and political, third floor. Second door on the left,” said the woman, in a bored tone. “They’ll explain how the exchange works to you there.”
The lift to the third floor seemed as decrepit as everything else about the place. The door slid closed with agonizing slowness. Inside, there were two signs about what do in the event of an emergency, with contradictory instructions as to which buttons to press and what number to call. There was no sign of a telephone.
At the third floor the corridor was dimly lit. One of the overhead strip lights flickered and buzzed. There were more unkempt-looking noticeboards. The second door on the left had another metal sign that read ‘Social and Political’. One of the corner screws was missing.
The room was too small for its contents. There was another counter, with another uniformed woman sitting behind it. Shelves crammed with bulging lever arch files covered the walls from floor to ceiling. Behind the counter there was a table, on which Robin could see piles of paper spilling onto the floor.
The woman behind the counter gave Robin a friendly smile, and for the first time that day he felt himself relax a little.
“I have an idea,” he said. “I hope it’s - I think it’s beautiful, and I’d like to -”
“Here’s the form, and the notes,” said the smiling woman. “It’s quite straightforward, but if you need any help just ask.” She handed him a thin sheaf of papers and indicated a desk on the other side of the room.
Robin sat down and looked at the form. There were several pages for personal information, but only a very small space in which he was requested to describe the idea itself. He looked around for a pen, and finding none, took out his own.
The minutes passed, slowly. Robin was aware of the ticking of a large electric clock above the counter. The personal information sections were exhaustive but easy enough to understand. The notes, and the later parts of the form, were very confusing. At last he finished, and went back to the woman at the desk.
She took the form from him and begun to copy out his entries on what looked to be a very old computer. She typed slowly, pecking at the keyboard with two fingers, and looking backwards and forwards between the handwritten form, the keys, and the flickering monochrome monitor.
“Wouldn’t it have been quicker if I’d just typed it straight in myself?” asked Robin.
The woman shrugged. “Administrative Improvements is on the sixth floor,” she said. “We’re just Social and Political here.”
Robin waited for what seemed like a long time.
“You’ve not assigned a nominated beneficiary,” the woman said, at last. “Or signed the primary assertion of ownership. We can’t put it in if you don’t do that.”
“I don’t understand,” said Robin, feeling small and stupid. “I don’t want to own anything. I just want to exchange my idea. My beautiful idea.”
“Don’t worry,” said the woman, in the patient, slow tone one would use to explain to a not very bright child. “A lot of people find it confusing, the first time they file an idea.”
She thinks I’m an idiot, thought Robin.
“The whole point of the exchange is to enable ideas to be owned,” she said. “So that they can be traded. Bought and sold.”
“Oh,” said Robin. “I thought the exchange was to encourage the spread of ideas. Like a sort of library.”
“Exactly!” said the woman. “You wouldn’t steal books from a library, would you?”
“Of course not,” said Robin. “Only, an idea isn't the same as a book, is it?”
“No, it’s not,” said the woman. “A proper idea is unique. That’s what makes it intellectual property. And we can’t have people stealing each other’s property. That’s why we made the exchange; to establish ownership and property in thought. Because everything should belong to someone.”
“But I want my idea to spread,” said Robin. “I want as many people as possible to hear about it. A book in a library, well, only one person can borrow it at a time...unless there’s two copies, of course, and then…” His voice trailed away.
“We can’t have two copies of an idea,” said the woman, with a hint of irritation creeping in to her voice. Her smile had vanished. “How would we know which was the real one?”
“Aren’t they both the real one?” asked Robin. “A copy of the idea is...well, it is the same as the real one. Exactly the same. It’s not a counterfeit idea, or anything like that.”
“It’s a pirated idea,” said the woman. “The originator owns the idea, unless they’ve sold it to someone else, and then the buyer owns it. If anyone else has the idea, then they’ve stolen it. Like they walked into a shop and taken took something off the shelf without paying for it.”
“No they haven’t,” said Robin, who was also becoming irritated now. “Because if I steal something from a shop it’s not there anymore. But if someone else has my idea, I’ve still got it. It’s not gone anywhere.”
“If we followed your logic, nobody would make ideas,” said the woman. “There’d be no point, if they couldn’t own them. What would be the incentive?”
“I don’t have ideas because of an incentive,” Robin replied. “I have them because I think about something, and it leads to an idea. Or it doesn’t...but whether it does or not is nothing to do with incentives or ownership. It’s what brains do, have ideas.”
And then Robin had another idea.
“You know what?” he said. “I don’t think I want to put my idea into the exchange after all. I’ll find somewhere else to put it.”
“Suit yourself,” said the woman. “Only mind out. Someone else might put your idea - “ she held up her fingers to make air quotes as she said the word - “Into the exchange. And then it wouldn’t be yours anymore, it would be theirs.”
“I’ll take the chance,” said Robin. “And all this talk about owning ideas has given me another idea. I don’t know what I’ll do with it. I just know I won’t be putting it into the exchange.”
“Suit yourself,” said the woman, shrugging. “I don’t care either way.” She began to peck at her keyboard again.
Robin left the room and walked back to the lift.
Information wants to be free, he thought. Now there’s an idea.