IP Freely

I’ve noticed that many libertarians, despite their enthusiasm for property rights in general, have a problem with intellectual property (IP). They tend to see it as another state-granted monopoly that shouldn’t exist. In practical terms, it bars access to information and limits progress. As such, many libertarians have taken up common cause with open source activists who want to liberate information.

The basic arguments against IP are as follows: 1) Nobody can own an abstract object, like an idea. Ideas exist in other people’s minds and property and you don’t have any legitimate claim over the minds and property of others. 2) Using an idea isn’t ‘theft.’ If I use your idea, you still have your original idea and property. 3) Property rights apply to scarce resources, but information isn’t a scarce resource. The use of information isn’t a zero-sum game like the use of physical property. Gains by one don’t have to come at the expense of another.

Granted, this is a very brief oversimplification of these arguments and it’s not my purpose to refute them here. I just want to complicate the matter by questioning whether they’re consistent with another well-known libertarian line of argument. For example, libertarians sometimes argue that taxation is theft. To make the point, they often appeal to the following thought experiment. Let’s say that the state forced the unemployed into unpaid labor for the next five years. Needless to say, no welfare state liberal would favor such a policy. Indeed, our moral intuitions tell us that it is wrong. The libertarian then argues by analogy that taxation should strike our moral intuitions in the same way. When the ‘currency’ that’s being unjustly and coercively appropriated is time and labor, we don’t have any problem seeing that it’s wrong. When the ‘currency’ is money, however, many don’t have the same qualms. But the libertarian will then insist that money is simply the product of time plus labor. In both cases, time and labor are what’s being stolen.

It’s not my purpose here to evaluate the above argument. I leave that as an exercise for the reader. Again, however, I’m wondering how consistent it is with arguments against intellectual property. I’ll grant that it’s very difficult to make sense of the notion of stealing an idea or any other abstract object. We speak that way in ordinary language, but we’re probably trying to capture the notion that time and labor can be stolen. This seems like a coherent notion as the above thought experiment concedes. In concrete terms, if I spend ten years of my life writing a book and you spend ten seconds downloading it for free, does that not strike a libertarian’s moral intuitions as theft of time and labor? If not, why not? I’m not asking this rhetorically; I would genuinely like to know. To me, there seems to be a strong analogy between the anti-taxation argument and the pro-IP argument. Insofar as libertarians accept the former and reject the latter, they may be inconsistent.

About these ads

9 comments on “IP Freely

  1. I might be even less consistent in this line of reasoning: I am all for (moderate) taxation, and pretty much all against intellectual property. For me, it isn’t a matter of theft when the state deducts a portion of my income for public benefits. I could move to a country with less or no taxes, effectively opting out of public benefits. In the end, I would end up paying directly for state services, because someone broke into my home, stole my diamonds and the police won’t investigate unless I give them money.

    I do think that people should get recognition for their work, especially intellectual work. But when I buy a book, what percentage does the writer actually get? Unless of course the writer posted his book online, himself, to be downloaded as a pdf and received donations, because people thought his work was worth it? Btw, there are methods to restrict downloads to paying customers on your site. No, that doesn’t stop people who have bought your pdf from spreading it to friends. Who cares? The next book you write, people will know you, and they’ll buy it if they’ve gotten your previous book from a friend. And maybe, they’ll become fans, and buy everything you’ve produced. It works with books, music, paintings, etc.; people gather, it’s in our nature. If you don’t want others to (ab-)use your intellectual property, just shut up, go into the mountains/desert, and become a hermit

    • danielmullin81 says:

      I don’t see any inconsistency in your case. It would be easy to argue that the public has a right to any knowledge that’s produced by academics at publicly-funded universities. It might be slightly more difficult to make the case with respect to ‘privately’ produced knowledge, but I’m sympathetic to your argument that open digital distribution might be in the best interests of the author.

      In practice, current copyright law often privileges publishers rather than authors. These laws, especially in the digital age, need to be massively reformed. However, even if one supports the author’s rights over the publisher’s, the concept of intellectual property still seems to function as justification. The question isn’t whether someone ‘owns’ the work and has the right to benefit from it, but who owns it and why. For this reason, I think ‘intellectual property’ is a concept we ought to subject to philosophical analysis.

  2. Larry says:

    somewhat off point but I just gotta say it: people can’t own ideas. as humans we all share worldly insights that others greedily try to lay claim to for their own aggrandizement. Citations in writing drive me batty. I’ve thought of stuff myself but because someone “claimed it” first I have to give them credit for it. What a waste of time when writing papers. It turned me off to the whole process of intellectual discourse and writing in general. Rules, rules, rules. They ruined it for me.

    I’m such a philistine.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      The academic mode of writing turns me off too. You aren’t encouraged to be original in grad school; you’re simply taught to master a list of citations. That’s why I enjoy the freedom of blogging.

  3. elkement says:

    I am afraid I don’t have very strong or very coherent opinions on that. I admit that I lose all my sense of humor if somebody tries to “reuse” some technical stuff I published to our business website without proper reference (which didn’t happen often fortunately).

    I feel that people often do this because they don’t give this much thought, not because they have a developed theory on IP. It might be difficult to understand why it is OK to share on Facebook – having Facebook display that miniature preview image – in contrast to copying the image on your server. As you said in relation to publishers – it is the providers of the “sharing infrastructure” in the broader sense that profit most.

    But on the other hand I find it ridiculous that you can patent the smiley (the icon). Regarding in particular non-technical “ideas” I am with Mark Twain who said all human utterance is basically plagiarism. But still: Every time I read an account by a photographer or a writer whose images or writings were copied by a shameless thief – I side with the writer.

    So my view is not very consistent, and it seems I tend to support the concept of IP protection when it would help the small business entrepreneur, the lonesome inventor, or artist – but I don’t like it when it used by “publishers” (in the broader sense) for defending their empires that are very hard to attack anyway.

    So the difference to taxation is probably: Taxation by definition can only serve a big, ruling, powerful entity. IP may serve the lonesome rebels at the other end of the food chain, too.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      Good insights, as usual. Like you, my intuitions aren’t very consistent. I tend to think authors and creators should receive credit, and profit, from their work, but in practice ‘intellectual property’ often has the opposite outcome.

  4. Everything I do is under a Creative Commons licence, all I ask is credit as the creator. If, at some future time I want to turn some of that into a commodity, then some people will buy it and others will take it for free. Whatever.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s