I’ve been meaning to write about intellectual property for some time now. It’s an issue I see so many people on the wrong side of, from communists to libertarians and many people in between. The arguments I’ve seen have many places from the ‘sticking it to the man’ approach, the communist view that property is theft and the libertarian approach that it isn’t property, so it isn’t theft. The point of this article is to demonstrate first that intellectual property is in fact property, which comes from an improper view of property. Once I’ve established that it is property, it’s a simple step to demonstrate that it is immoral to ‘steal’, take, use, copy, etc.
I’m debating how I should write this particular article and present arguments because I’ve run into two particular types of critiques that come from very different places. There is the mainstream everyday type of person that just mooches off the hard work of others and then you have the libertarian types that believe in property rights, but view intellectual property as some sort of property rights violation – IP conflicts with physical property rights.
From the perspective of libertarian scholars such as Stephan Kinsella that property rights come from the scarcity of a good. Goods are scarce items. I own a fish, you own a fish and it’s not the same fish. They reject the notion of intellectual property on the simple fact that there is no scarcity and law is creating an artificial form of scarcity.
Property rights are derived from the fundamental right that all rights are derived from, the right to your life. For man to survive they require the use of their mind and self-generated action to achieve the values that make living possible. Property and the rights to it require that you own the values you gain. A simple example of the cave man day would be going down to the river to catch a fish for food. Once the fish has been caught, it is property of the person that caught it. If someone could come along and take it, than this man cannot survive.
This is true of our more complex time where value isn’t necessarily a fish, but a complex operating system or a beautiful song.
The fish being scarce doesn’t result in being yours or you coming to possess it. The one parallel to take away from these examples is that property is (1) an action and (2) a product of man’s mind. The fish is a physical entity, but to catch a fish you must think about how to catch it and put those thoughts into action.
The problem with the libertarian approach is the view that property is metaphysical universals. The things found out in nature like a fish, tree, or rock. The concept as simple as the mere atoms ‘out there’ fails to explain the fundamentals of property such as ‘what makes something yours and not mine?’, ‘what is property for?’, ‘what separates your property, from my property, from unowned property?’
Humans survive different than animals because we take nature and manipulate it for our needs. It’s an essential component of property.
How come a music album (CD) costs $15, but I can buy blank CDs for a fraction of cent?
My reply to this was very simple: “Put a blank disc in your CD player and listen to that.” My simple retort demonstrates the point; it’s not about the disc (the medium), but the contents of the disc – which is the value. This is no difference when talking about 8-tracks or MP3s.
There seems to be this view among people that property can really only be physical things, eg: mere atoms. Since property is mere atoms, it suddenly becomes okay to take (steal) such intellectual contents – such as how atoms are arranged, changed and manipulated. The view of ‘stealing’, rationalized by those that take, is that it doesn’t deprive the owner of anything – therefore it isn’t immoral. Counter this to better definition of stealing; expropriating someone else’s value. It’s quite similar to someone not paying their employee because work isn’t tangible ‘atoms’. As John Locke said, you own the product of your labor.
There is also the view among some people that property and intellectual property differ based on limitations. The argument presented as:
If I own a chair, I can do with it as I see fit. I can sit on it, stand on it, paint it, burn it, modify it, etc. With intellectual property I am only allowed to personally use it. I can’t modify or copy. Due to this limitation, it can’t be real property.
The problem with this argument is that it contains very little in the way depth or thought. I suppose on a very simple level it’s easy to think that you have unlimited actions with your property, but you don’t. Owning a car doesn’t mean you can drive it in my living room. You can’t throw your chair off the Empire State Building at whim. These are limits on the use of your property.
Now some people at this point are thinking: well that limitation is where other people’s rights are being violated. Yes, that’s the point. Limitations on property are ranged by the violation of other people’s rights and that is no different when it comes to intellectual property. They are one in the same.
Intellectual property is a monopoly.
The sad thing about this comment is that I’ve heard it more from defenders of property rights than actual Marxists. I’ll first say that applying an economics term like monopoly to the moral concept of property rights is a misuse of the term. Intellectual property is a “monopoly” the same way property is a “monopoly” – I own my house, it’s mine. I have a monopoly on my house. The same is true of iPhones. It’s a monopoly of Apple.
Patents having an end date of XX years after the death of the creator is just arbitrary and stupid. Since it’s just arbitrary, it is invalid.
The idea that a patent ends 50 years after the creators death is arbitrary in their view, therefore it is stupid. The error in this thinking is that property is forever. All property degrades without human action to restore, fix and improve. A dilapidated old house that no one lives in, maintains or visits isn’t property forever, for you, your kids and your kid’s kids. All property degrades and only self-generated human action is capable of maintaining this property. An abandoned house is no longer property until someone (a complete nobody in this case) decides to do something with it. Sure, law will have to come up with a time for when property is considered abandoned and that may seem arbitrary, but they are based on sound reasoning – same as the contract age being 18.
Patents and copyrights work the same way. It’s a recognition that the property degrades over time and you can’t just have the property forever without action. With that said, if one can improve and work on their intellectual property should have the full right to extend it longer.
Copying doesn’t deprive the creator.
This can be best defined as the ‘inflationary fallacy’. This is somewhat extra ironic when coming from the libertarian type. A good example of this is the printing of money. This is the act of making copies of money and not depriving anyone else of their money. Is this not destructive with the creation of inflation? Hello libertarians? Copying people’s hard work is A-OK, but not money that’s treasonous. Copying money destroys the scarcity of it and destroys the value.
This applies the same way to a copyrighted property. Someone making copies is destroying the scarcity of the creators. The copying parties are increasing their wealth completely at the expense of the producer.
Here’s a thread from reddit that I wanted to dissect a bit because of the ironic compartmentalization of people in general. Photographers, who sell intellectual property and get upset (rightfully) when their content is stolen, talk about how it’s moral or necessary to pirate Adobe’s software.
This is a standard argument by people. We’ll call it ‘they’re rich, so it’s okay’. This is typical and has been going on for a long time in various degrees. It’s okay to steal from businesses because they’re rich. It’s okay because they steal from the poor. It’s okay to tax them to death. And on and on. Is it wrong to be a multi-billion dollar corporation? Does pirating somehow become wrong below a billion or what’s the magic number?
It’s true that Adobe has a monopoly on Lightroom and Photoshop. It is THEIR product. Just as Apple has a monopoly on iPhone – which is why we don’t see Samsung producing iPhones.
The real issue people have here is that Adobe makes a good product and expects to be paid for it. That’s their crime in the eyes of those that feel justified in pirating. Despite other software existing – even free options – they want this software. And their want is all that is required to justify stealing it.
This is the ‘they didn’t build it’ argument. It’s true that many larger businesses will purchase the rights to software, and other IP. The problem that this negates the point that business can’t just ‘take’ the IP, it must purchase it from a willing seller. That’s the difference.
Photographers typically license their photos for specific uses. This is selling the rights to the photos under the terms they agree. That’s property. Someone that develops software or a patent has the choice to sell it under the terms they so choose. They can sell it exclusively for an upfront payment. They can sell it exclusively for royalty over time. They can sell it for equity in a business. Or they may just buy the business and along with the original founders build it into Adobe’s ecosystem.
Whether they literally put the first pieces into place as IP is irrelevant (because purchasing property doesn’t suddenly make it illegitimate), Adobe in this case (assuming they bought the rights to Lightroom/Photoshop IP from others) brought it to the mass market in an easy package for anyone to easily get.
This is the ‘protest’ argument. I can get behind the idea of boycotting businesses that do things I don’t like, but this is a justification for theft. They’re main issue is that Adobe sells access to their property based on their own terms as a business. That’s their sin. And just as I’ve heard this argument from people pirating movies, or music – they believe the terms should be their standard. They believe if they could force Adobe to sell based on their desired price and terms that would be right. In fact, they believe that this would make the business more profitable.
Here’s the thing about property rights. If I own something, I set the terms of sale. I can set the terms in ways that are very beneficial for trade or very awful for trade. I can set the terms in such a way that I go out of business. That’s what being a free individual means, I can act on my own judgment.
The worst part of this person’s argument is the notion that companies exist to serve the needs and desires of the market. I can exist and produce for whatever reasons I want, as an individual or business. I may make more money serving the needs and desires of players in the market, but it’s my call if I want to satisfy the needs of the 10 richest people or 10 million regular folks. Or if I’m not interested in serving anyone, but myself. People (people make businesses) don’t exist to serve you. They don’t exist to sell a second of their time and energy based on your terms.
Finally the “it doesn’t hurt them” argument or the inflation argument. It’s the notion that since it’s just copying, it doesn’t hurt them and therefore not unethical. Just as in my printing money example, it does deprive them of financial gain. The other aspect is whether it is moral to take something that isn’t ‘tangible’ (ie: material). Work is intangible, and I bet this person expects to be paid for their WORK – even though it doesn’t ‘take anything away’ from them.
It’s just such a sad argument. Instead of the inflation argument, it might be better to call it the ‘definition’ argument. Why? Well they implicitly bring in a moral definition that negates intellectual property at its core. Stealing, theft, etc can only be material depriving – therefore IP theft isn’t a real concept. That’s if we ignore that theft of IP deprives the owner of the wealth they should have received.