Intellectual Property Is an Infringement on Liberty

Will Tippens
Aug 22, 2013 at 11:24 AM

Intellectual property is an extremely divisive yet often overshadowed subject of debate between liberty-minded folk. Some embrace all forms of IP, while others completely reject all IP. This article falls into the latter.

Intellectual property is a vital topic to understand for many reasons, not the least of which is the current and ongoing battle for Internet freedom and privacy. Although SOPA, PIPA, and CISPA were all defeated*, politicians, backed by lobbyists seeking monopolistic privileges, will continue to sneak onto the Congressional floor in new disguises.

But more fundamentally, IP is an essential area of libertarian philosophy because it cuts directly to the root of all libertarianism and indeed liberty itself: property rights.

Anti-libertarian "libertarian” Ayn Rand once wrote that, “Patents and copyrights are the legal implementation of the base of all property rights: a man’s right to the product of his mind.”

Rand would agree that if a man carves a statue by carving it from a block of marble, he is the rightful owner of the statue. But is it the “creation” of the statue by sculpting it that grants him the right to ownership, or was it the preceding ownership of the marble itself? Suppose that the same man carves a statue from someone else’s block of marble. It is clear that he has no right to ownership of the resulting statue, despite mixing his labor with it and exerting his intellectual faculties in its production.

Therefore, the mere “creation” of a product is not sufficient to establish property rights. Instead, property rights are based on having an exclusive right to control a scarce resource — the labor element is purely incidental.

Because of this vital distinction — the exclusivity of ownership of scarce material — two claims to rightful ownership cannot overlap. Thus, to grant an “intellectual property” right is necessarily an invasion of an already existing property right in the real world. If an enterprising dowser comes up with a radically new method to dig a well, to grant her an “intellectual property” monopoly means that the state is granting a superior title over preexisting property rights — meaning no one else who already owned a parcel of land could dig the well in the same way. When a person cannot legally assert full ownership over her property, she does not truly own it.

In essence, “intellectual property” rights are nothing more than government granted monopolies on ideas themselves. This creates an artificial scarcity in a medium that, by definition, exists independently of scarcity: the intangible. As Thomas Jefferson said, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me."

A system that allows ownership of ideas will also allow the ownership of other abstractions — like  phrases, colors, and likenesses. For instance, Subway has attempted to trademark the word “footlong,” Paris Hilton unsurprisingly owns “That’s hot,” and basketball player Anthony Davis famously tried to trademark his unibrow.

More important, intellectual property, which is ethereal in its nature, creates a powerful tool for government to greatly increase its control over its citizens in the name of the oft-quoted “public good”. The reasoning behind this utilitarian argument is overly simplistic: people must be given government-backed assurance of a gigantic profit if they are to be driven to innovate. Not only does this fly in the face of well-established market forces, but there is plenty of real world evidence suggesting that intellectual property is a hindrance rather than an economic incentive.

It’s important to remember that we live in a time where the state can do just about anything it wants, and this manifests itself in the marketplace as much as anywhere else. Mega-corporations like Monsanto already essentially write their own laws. And with biotech companies with their foot in the door of patenting “artificial” gene sequences, the sooner American can wake up to the injustice of intellectual property, the better.

Here’s something you can copy and paste: Say no to governments infringing on your property rights by creating artificial monopolies on ideas. It's patently wrong!

*Note that privacy rights can exist only through property rights.

Content published on the Young Americans for Liberty blog is only representative of the opinions and research of the individual authors. It does not necessarily reflect the views, goals, or membership of YAL. 

I must respectfully disagree with your stance on Intellectual Property.  I know my stance on this topic is usually not the popular opinion of the Libertarian community, but I still feel it is valid.

Although I agree to an extent that it's difficult to define how/why someone can own an idea, I think it's silly to assume intellectual property rights cannot exist in the first place.

In my career field (film/animation) people put in countless hours of work in order to provide the service of entertainment.  I don't believe that it is unfair or monopolistic to expect to be compensated for this labor.  And keep in mind most of the people in my field, myself included, do not work for huge Hollywood studios, we produce content for small independent studios which can be seriously hurt by illegal downloads.

Take your analogy of the sculpture.  You claim that the very creation of the sculpture is not enough to establish ownership, rather one must own all of the tools used to create said statue.  But do we give ownership of "David" to Michelangelo simply because he owned the marble used to create the masterpiece?  Of course not, we give him ownership of it because he was the creative force behind it.

Now compare it to modern works of art, mainly the kinds of media Intellectual Property laws are there to protect.  Michelangelo's David isn't something that can be duplicated like a film or song, so it was only purchased once, and at a price that covered the costs of the entire creation of the product.  Digital media today, however, can be easily duplicated countless times, therefore viewing rights are purchased by numerous individuals at prices far (far, FAR) below the production cost of the original copy.  A low budget animated film costs about 5 million dollars to create, but you can own a copy for about $15.  Is it really greedy to ask such a low price for something that cost millions of dollars and countless hours to create?

Free Market Capitalism is centered around the practice of individuals voluntarily entering contracts with each other because both parties benefit mutually.  The only business government has in economics is to ensure both parties hold up their end of the deal and no fraud is committed.  Unless stated otherwise by the author, when you watch a film you enter an implicit contract with the producer of the work that the copy you are watching is legally owned by you or someone else or that you will compensate the author in some other way if this is not the case.  If you are uncomfortable with paying for an idea and you feel paying a small fee to be entertained by someone's film/song/video game exe., is harmful or non-beneficial to you, find some other way to entertain yourself. 

This isn't to say its unheard of or bad for content producers to give their work away for free (I used to frequently upload my work to youtube) but the interaction must be voluntary.  The creator and or sponsor of the work must have expressed in some way, implicitly or explicitly, that it is OK for anyone to view their work at any point in time without paying for it.

Seamus Coughlin's picture