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.