Dec 092009

Over at the anarchist-libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute, intellectual property lawyer Stephan Kinsella posted “An Objectivist Recants on IP.” The posting describes how someone named Bala was mixing it up in their discussion threads and eventually came to conclude that “An Objectivist cannot and should not support the notion of Intellectual Property because it violates fundamental Objectivist principles.”

Unsurprisingly, the culmination of Bala’s odyssey and the central point that cemented the illegitimacy of intellectual property in his mind is a common one voiced by libertarians opposed to intellectual property: the notion that intellectual property rights inherently conflict with material property rights.

Ideas and patterns, on the other hand, presented a problem when I tried to treat them as “property”. While there is no denying the value of ideas in human advancement, exclusion of other individuals from an idea or pattern necessarily involves the initiation of force. For instance, how else is A to prevent B from incorporating A’s idea in his B’s product other than to force himself upon B’s property and coerce B to prevent him from doing so, thus violating B’s Liberty? In effect, recognising ideas and patterns as property is tantamount to saying that A has a moral right to initiate force against B simply because he has coined an idea. Thus, as an Objectivist, classifying ideas and patterns as “property” takes me into dangerous territory where I am ready to label the initiation of force as legitimate.

This is ultimately based on confusion about which kinds of ideas do and don’t properly count as intellectual property, as well as confusion about what does and doesn’t constitute a rights-violation. I addressed this (and more) a few years back in “Don’t Steal This Article!“, an analysis of the strongest libertarian arguments I could find against the legitimacy of intellectual property:

The first thing to note is the plain fact that people are routinely prevented from using their material property when it would violate any right — so the protection of intellectual property rights would not be unique in so “controlling” other people in their use of their material property. For example, my neighbor’s person and property rights are not violated when he is not allowed to spontaneously whack me in the head with his fully-owned two-by-four. His rights are not violated in preventing him from using his tangible truck to pull up to my house and drive off with my entertainment center. We are all restricted from using our persons and property to violate the rights of others, and such restrictions do not themselves constitute an infringement of rights because nobody has the right to violate rights.

It is bad enough that these libertarian scholars ignore such an obvious point, but the evasion reaches full bloom in Kinsella’s explanation of the alleged “taking” caused by the appearance of intellectual property. The charge is that, as intellectual property comes into existence, liberty is lost in a magical transfer of partial ownership from the owners of material property to an author or inventor, thereby unjustly preventing them from doing something they were otherwise free to do with their own property. But in no sense is any ability, permission, or liberty lost. Recall that intellectual property rights protect the manufacture of creations — objects which did not and would not otherwise exist. Before a novel has been written, absolutely nobody has the power to publish it, so its being authored cannot remove any liberty previously enjoyed by printers. And before some better mousetrap is invented, nobody has the power to produce it — so its being invented cannot deny manufacturers any previously enjoyed freedom.

Indeed, far from losing any power or liberty, the options available to owners of material property only increase with the appearance of intellectual property: they are presented with at least the potential to use their property in the production of new, life-serving objects in collaboration with an inventor or artist.

Bala’s friends there at LvMI are definitely not helping him out. How many of the other issues with his account of Objectivism and IP can you see and (constructively) address?

  • Kris Bro

    This entry is begging many questions, what is a “right,” and is the exclusive freedom to commercially utilize a concept or possible pattern a “right?”

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha