the question of intellectual property

Against Intellectual PropertyCommenting on my post "when private property isn’t," Starkwoman writes,

I’m left wondering whether or not any of this can be related at all to ‘intellectual property’ rights (or wrongs). When employed by a research firm, it is usually clear that what one creates or discovers while employed by that firm ‘belongs’ to the research firm. But this is never stipulated, before the fact, when employed by a university.

Of late, universities are increasingly ‘taking possession’ of the intellectual property of faculty members, sometimes using, as an excuse, that the faculty member used university resources in developing their ideas. Unlike, for instance, government employees who are often free to leave their work at their workplace, an academic’s ‘workplace’ includes the space that they traverse to and from ‘work’, their living rooms, even their bathrooms, and often happens well outside a 40-hr ‘work week’. The intellectual work of faculty members in Faculties like Computer Science, Engineering, Medicine, can be ‘saleable’, a ‘commodity’, but in the Humanities and Social Sciences the ‘products’ of our intellectual ‘work’ may have little commercial value; however, now even our course lecture notes are deemed the property of the university.

Have I, for decades, been freely giving away my creative ideas to colleagues and students, perspectives that I thought were my intellectual property–and hence mine to give–when in fact I’ve been giving away the university’s property? When did education–as distinct from university degrees that is–become a commodity? It used to be considered a service, like health care. Neither is free any longer, apparently, and both seem to be ‘for sale’.

Thank you for your comment, Starkwoman. I think your examples illustrate why IP is so problematic.

Libertarians are divided on the question of intellectual property, but many have come around to the position that IP is a form of monopoly, not natural property in the Lockean or Rothbardian sense.

If you are someone who is persuaded by principled theory, you will want to read Stephan Kinsella‘s seminal monograph, "Against Intellectual Property" (Journal of Libertarian Studies 15.2 [Spring 2001], pp. 1–53).

Kinsella and Jeffrey Tucker have been arguing for years now that property is only an appropriate concept for scarce goods, the uses of which must be exclusive and can therefore be the subject of conflict. If you and I have different and conflicting uses of a chair, any conflict resolution will ultimately have to determine who has the superior claim. We may find a compromise, but whether or not the compromise is acceptable is finally up to whoever’s property it turns out to be.

Ideas, in contrast, are not scarce. You and I can pursue different uses of the same idea without conflict. There is no natural need for property in the intellectual realm. Seen in this light, the creation of intellectual-property laws is an attempt to impose an artificial scarcity on the world of thoughts and ideas.

Against Intellectual MonopolyIf that’s right, then the term "intellectual property" is a misnomer (and an oxymoron), attaching the honorable word property to what is really state-sponsored privilege. In fact, Kinsella prefers the term "pattern privilege" for the IP laws he opposes.

If you are more persuaded by consequentialist arguments and have practical concerns — How will artists make a living without copyright? How can society promote innovation without patents? — then you may be more interested in the book Against Intellectual Monopoly, by Michel Boldrin and David Levine. Not only do IP laws not promote innovation; turns out they suppress it. AIM is the right book for those who prefer facts to theory (or for the theoretically inclined who want to know what to say to the consequentially inclined).

Jeffrey Tucker writes and speaks about all of these issues, with an additional emphasis on the question of how artists can financially benefit from their creativity without copyright.

I hope this helps, and thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

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2 Responses to the question of intellectual property

  1. Christopher Fox says:

    “Ideas, in contrast, are not scarce.”

    Good ideas, on the other hand, are as rare as hen’s teeth.

    • Which is why it’s better to substitute the word “rivalrous” in place of “scarce”, and while perhaps it was not obvious, I’m sure it was the sense that BK Marcus intended to convey.

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