No Coercion
27May/092

Are Intellectual Property Rights Real?

 Here's a post on intellectual property (or monopoly) from Art Carden of the Independent Institute and reposted on the Mises blog:

Intellectual Monopoly is an Unnecessary Evil

There are some interesting points about whether things like patents and copyrights actually hinder technological progress and economic growth (rather than stimulate it, as their defenders claim).

But it seems to me that the fundamental problem with government-granted intellectual property rights (from a libertarian perspective) is that they're granted by government. The very fact that these rights can only exist through the workings of a coercive, monopoly government indicates that they are not true rights. It's the same as the socialists who say that there exists a 'right' to health care or a minimum wage or a certain level of housing. We know these are not true rights because they require initiation of force against someone else. Since the creation and enforcement of today's patents, copyrights, etc., also requires the initiation of force (at the very least in the form of taxes confiscated to fund that part of the government), it seems that those are not real rights.

However, I do imagine there could develop some form of market-based IP in the absence of the government system depending on how the costs and benefits play out in different situations.

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  1. I don’t understand why some libertarians are opposed to a legitimate role for government in protecting property rights, whether the property in question is real, financial, or intellectual. Jefferson and Locke believed that that was the very purpose of government- to defend the natural rights of life, liberty, and property.

    Government does not grant property rights- rather, it ACKNOWLEDGES them. Clearly, minimum wage laws and so forth are not written to defend property. But why wouldn’t we want the government to recognize one particular type of property (IP)?
    As an aspiring author, I am glad I will have legal recourse against anyone trying to steal my prose.

    That’s the whole purpose of government- to defend our property from confiscation by others. The social contract is that we pay the government taxes in payment for this defense. Any market-based approach to property protection would ensure that the most affluent and powerful can coercively steal from those with less means. Hence the idea of “equal protection under the law.”

    How are you liking the Thomas Woods book?

  2. Well, the way I look at it is this: a government limited to ONLY enforcing contracts and defending against internal crime and external threats would certainly be better than what we have now, but it’s fundamentally flawed. Once you admit that it’s okay for the government to ‘protect’ us, there’s no way to draw a line when someone else comes along and says that part of that protection must include welfare payments, business regulation, health care, etc. The only logically consistent position (it seems to me) is that there is no actual legitimate function for a coercion-based government at all.

    Now, the way this applies to property rights is that we don’t actually need government to enforce rights to normal property (although we often use government for that purpose anyway since they’re taxing us for it), but government action is required to enforce rights to intellectual property as currently set up. Since you have to initiate force against people to fund such government action, it indicates that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our system of IP rights.

    Another mark against IP is that property arises from scarcity. If someone takes a piece of bread you own and eats it, you are short one piece of bread (i.e. the bread is a rival good). But if someone makes a copy of your song (or book), you still have your song (or book). Now, unfortunately, you may stand to earn less profit from sales of your work if there are free (or cheaper) copies floating around out there, but there is no natural right to potential profit. It would be like claiming a right to a certain value of your house and then suing your neighbor for using an ugly paint scheme on his house and reducing your home’s value. It may be an unfortunate fact of reality that intellectual works cannot logically be considered property.

    On the other hand, there are probably instances in which you could use contracts to ensure at least some payment for your works. Also, someone (publisher, software company, music producer, etc) might pay you to regularly produce intellectual works.

    Oh, and the Woods book is good. I’m about half way through it.


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