Imaginary, err I mean intellectual, property

This is a fine comment:

“I own a sofa. I can arrange the cushions on it in any pattern I like; if I couldn’t it would reduce my rights to my property. I also own a hard disk, and I can arrange the magnetic alignments on it in any pattern I like; if I couldn’t it would reduce my rights to my property. So to the extent that you believe in rights to real property, you cannot also believe in rights to imaginary property.”

The concept of IP-as-property (and hence, of copyright infringement as theft) is a ridiculous fiction: copyright is nothing more than a monopoly on the production of a particular product or service granted by the government to a particular individual or business, in theory because the government believes that the incentivising effect of granting the monopoly outweighs the loss of freedom and utility caused by granting the monopoly.

In other words, it’s as far from libertarianism as you can get: if you support IP laws [*], that shows that you think a) that there are areas where deliberate government planning produces better results than the free market; b) where this is the case, it’s right to reduce people’s freedom for the greater good; and c) the production of plans, inventions, blueprints and artworks is a situation where this is the case.

[*] As a believer in a mixed economy, I do support IP laws and have no intellectual difficulty with the argument above, although I’d prefer penalties for infringement to be smaller and solely civil, and for all copyrights and patents to expire 5-20 years after creation (depending on content type). Curiously though, many of the people who argue for tough IP laws generally argue against government interference in business.

4 thoughts on “Imaginary, err I mean intellectual, property

  1. John,

    I'll admit to having some problems with IP. I mean, how is it considered wrong to steal a computer, but not wrong to steal the ideas that made it possible to manufacture that computer?


  2. That's because you're letting the unspeak of the IP lobby colour your thinking.

    If I steal your computer, then you don't have one any more, and so although I benefit, you're being harmed against your will.

    But if I make a computer that's a copy of yours, then you still have one and so do I, so nobody's being harmed against their will.

    The problem is, in the absence of copyright and patent laws, Steve Jobs may not bother spending hundreds of millions of dollars on developing an awesome computer, because I might copy it [works better for software, obviously – I think $generic_Chinese_cloner would struggle to make a facsimile MacBook Air).

    So, to encourage him to develop awesome computers, we say "if someone invents excellent stuff, then the government will grant them a monopoly on selling said expensive stuff for a certain time period, and people who choose to arrange their physical property in a way that breaks that monopoly will be punished in the courts".

    The IP lobby say that the right to stop people from copying their ideas is 'property', and that breaking their monopoly is 'theft' – but they're lying.

  3. So, IP is theft – yes, I understand that. Once someone invents something, then they shouldn't be able to mark it with a copyright to stop other making something similar and also make money from it.

    However, there is still a need for Trademarks – even in a Libertarian Utopia.

    While McDonalds, just makes burgers, its not the burgers that people are wanting to buy, its a McDonalds Quarter pounder. While there is nothing wrong with also selling burgers, and maybe calling them a quarter pounder, there should be a protection in place to stop me calling it a McDonalds, or MacDonalds or whatever.
    This is not about IP.

    Hopefully people arguing in this debate understand the difference – however, I sometimes wonder!

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