Video: Intellectual Property: a dilemma for Libertarians

Tom Burroughes walks us through the libertarian, and some wider, arguments for and against the institution of Intellectual Property, including copyright, patents, trademarks design rights and secrets.

For anyone without means to enjoy the video, Tom has provided the following summary:

Libertarians place great importance on the institution of private property; private property is inseparable from liberty in general – freedom and “self ownership” are one and the same. Property is important for the benefits it makes possible: an extended market order, competition, privacy, a widely dispersed form of control over the means of production, and so on. Some of the arguments for property focus on the consequences. And some defences focus on a more normative approach, as in the natural rights tradition that argues that property is, as John Locke or Ayn Rand argued, a logical consequence of the idea that humans own their lives and need to be able to own the things that enable them to survive and flourish as free people.

But despite this, the issue of intellectual property is a difficult one for libertarians. On the “pro-IP” side, if one regards property as essential for fostering creativity, then there appears a strong case for encouraging people who develop creative works, be they novels, inventions, trademarks or whatever, to be able to own these things and derive an economic benefit from them for a period of time, if not indefinitely. This argument also draws on ideas of dignity and fairness: a novelist who has worked on a novel is entitled to try and insist on the exclusive right to sell their work for money. Even once a novel or some other work has been published, it does not immediately fall into the “public domain” where people can copy it at will since many people will still not have encountered this work and it seems unfair to deny the creator the chance to sell it for money, at least until a period of time has elapsed.

But there are big criticisms. To begin with, can an idea be “owned” in any meaningful way? Physical property such as land is what economists call an excludible good – only one person can stand on a patch of land at one time, say, whereas an infinite number of people can read a passage of a book without denying the owner of it use of this work. Physical goods are, in this sense, scarce, and we have property to ensure peaceful control of these things, but in the real of ideas, there is no such scarcity. Also, IP represents, on this argument, an attack on freedom. If I own a computer, and a supplier of software bans me from using it in certain ways lest I violate IP, then I am being told how to use my own physical property. In short, IP limits freedom. Also, like any state enforced right, there are issues of rent-seeking (not to mention the phenomenon of the IP “troll”). And IP is harder to enforce in the age of downloading and the internet. Even if IP has some merits, those merits are declining in today’s world. And some anti-IP folk deny that IP even is good for invention, arguing that many ideas and works will be developed anyway even without patents and copyright.

The talk does not suggest that there is a definite “right” or “wrong” answer, although having considered many of the arguments, I am more favourable to IP than I had expected when I started to explore this issue. It is hugely relevant: patent fights, for example, are frontpage news concerning firms such as Apple. And copyright fights feature regularly in the music and movie business.

I’d like to thank Tom once again for taking the time to prepare this excellent talk and for coming out of his way to deliver it to us. In addition, Tom has provided the full-text of the talk based on his notes which has been promoted to a spot in the site’s navigation.


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