Intellectual Property is Neither Property, Nor Intellectual

ipSince when is violence considered intellectual? Since when does one person own the thoughts of another? Since about 400 years ago, as it turns out. I really like this subject because it was one of the last aspects of statism that I clung to before embracing the far clearer moral compass of voluntarism.

If we are to accept the global system of violence and coercion commonly known as the State, then intellectual property (herein, IP) seems to make a lot of sense. I like to think of myself as a pretty smart guy. I am involved in creative works. Coming up with words, and sounds, and images takes time, and effort. This is labor, and I expect to be paid for it. In the larger scheme of things, medical researchers spend a great deal of money developing drugs and treatments and procedures to help people who otherwise might not live through the night. It stands to reason that they should be able to make their money back on their investment, or they would not so invest. If everybody is free to take anyone’s idea and copy it, and use it as their own, what incentive is there to develop new products, services, and works of art? You’ve already got this global system of control, why not use it to the advantage of these brilliant minds who are such a great benefit to mankind’s well being?

That’s the fun part of statism, ask a question, provide no answer, and the State will answer as it answers all things, with violence.

So let us pretend that I have no answer (I have plenty of answers, we’ll get to those later). Let us also pretend that there is no State (that’s a lot closer to the truth than most people realize, after all). “OMG! Chaos! Anarchy!” Calm down, everything will be OK, this is just a thought exercise. Pretend for a moment that we are living in a society where people pretty much understand that it’s not okay to rape, murder, and steal. Perhaps some of us voluntarily pay some armed people to watch over our homes while we’re at work to account for the occasional nutcase.

John Doe comes up with a great idea, but to develop the idea will cost him a great deal of money, and once developed, the idea will be very easy to replicate, which could diminish John’s return on his investment. The concept of intellectual property proposes statism, as the solution. So, in order to protect John’s profits, we are to erect a global system of theft (taxation), which will be required to pay the armed men who will use violence against the people who copy John’s idea. Sometimes, the people who protect John’s idea, will decide they want to kill each other (war), and so more money must be stolen. Some people cannot afford John’s idea, but it’s such a great idea, that the people who protect John’s idea think it would be terrible to deny it to them, so more money must be stolen to give to John so that he can give his idea to the poor people for free (every State run social welfare program in human history). I could go on about this for awhile, but hopefully you sorta see where it’s going.

Well, forgive me for saying this, but FUCK John’s idea! For me, intellectual property was the last thing I liked about the State, because I thought it could improve the economy and benefit me personally. But we have thousands of years of history which prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that statism creates nothing but poverty, misery, and death. I don’t care how good John’s idea is, it’s not worth creating a government over, and if it’s not worth creating a government over, then it necessarily cannot grant legitimacy to the ones presently in existence. So if you’re like I was, just drop it already and go full on anarchist, it’s not worth it!

The concept of property is really something that society came up with as a way to deal with appropriation of scarce resources. Land, for example, is a finite resource, and we need it to live upon, to grow crops in, and to mine resources from. If I start building a house and planting crops and mining resources on a particular piece of dirt, then you come around and try to do the same, you’re taking away the work I put into that land, which basically makes me your slave ex post facto. That sort of thing is going to lead to a lot of conflict and violence. So society generally accepts that by me mixing my labor with this scarce resource, I am now its owner and have exclusive rights to it. My land has a tendency to stay put, aside from the rotation of the planet, land tends to stay where it’s found, and it certainly does not replicate.

Ideas are quite different. Ideas travel, replicate, and mutate without any possible form of control. If you come up with an idea for a machine, and then I look at your machine in action, that idea is in my head now, and this is completely involuntary. If you took physical property and put it into my head without my consent, we’d call that assault, or murder actually, since putting an object that deep into my brain would surely kill me.

Some people say that you can’t own an idea, but I tend to disagree with them. If you think of an idea, it’s yours, you don’t have to share it with anybody. You can charge people money for that idea if you wish, you own your thoughts. When I see your idea in action however, if you tell me about your idea, then that idea is in my mind and I have my own thoughts about it, and I own those thoughts. Those are my thoughts and ideas and nobody has a higher claim to them than I do. To say that you have ownership over a concept, such that you have a higher claim to it than anybody who thinks of anything similar to it after you, is to assert ownership over the minds of others. You would be claiming the authority to repossess those ideas, and that’s as conceptually absurd as it is physically impossible.

Of course, my physical property doesn’t mess with your thought patterns. Yet, as I explained during the Ron Paul vs. RonPaul.com fiasco, intellectual property asserts that your thought patterns have the right to mess with my physical property. I own my computer, it is on my desk, it is in my house, I am the only one with the password to it, I can set it on fire if I wish to, because nobody has a higher claim to my computer than I do. If we are to accept the libertarian notion that I have the right to do whatever I want with my property, then it would stand to reason that I can use my computer to make music, and images, and text. If those words, images, and sounds are similar to the media someone else produced previously, do they now have a higher claim to my computer than I do? To say so is absurd. You’re more than welcome to think whatever you like while I click my mouse and tap my keys, my physical property isn’t interfering with your thought. So how is your thought claiming rights over my physical property? How can your thought dictate the pattern in which I click my mouse and tap my keys? The only possible answer is by force, and if you claim the right to use force against me, what are the limits on that force? How will you determine the proportionate response to something that has in fact costed you nothing? How similar does the idea have to be? Does every rapper owe Grandmaster Flash money? Does everyone who uses the term Rock & Roll owe Trixie Smith money? Since there is no basis in fact for the claim of ownership, the only way to ascertain this is to leave it to a body of men such as the legislature or a court to determine, and as previously mentioned, governments don’t have a very good reputation for equitably resolving disputes.

The good news is, John’s idea isn’t dead in the water just yet. John’s a smart guy, and so he doesn’t necessarily need to resort to violence to solve his problems. Violence as a solution to anything other than violence is intellectual sloth. Initiatory force is something people do when they run out of answers, and so we shouldn’t be employing it just to further an otherwise good idea, as to do so would only taint it. If our idea is that good, there’s got to be a way to accomplish it without threatening people and stealing money and waging wars.

Ultimately, finding that better way is up to the person who wants to market their idea. People always want to charge anarchists with centrally planning the global economy when our whole entire point is that it shouldn’t be centrally planned. If the statists knew so much about central planning, we wouldn’t have all the problems we have today, or the problems we’ve had over the last six thousand years or so. I am however going to try to provide some examples on how I think a free market could handle some of the concerns that intellectual property addresses today, if you don’t like those ideas, ask a dozen other anarchists and you’ll probably find a dozen other answers, that’s the nice thing about a free society, you have lots of choices.

Medicine in the absence of the State would revolve as many things do, around trust and reputation. Without the FDA telling you that a drug was safe (they’ve done such a good job of determining that after all), there would be a strong market incentive to go with the company that understands the drug best, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find somebody who understands a drug better than the people who developed it. Additionally, being first to market with a product provides a strong market advantage as competitors rush to keep up. The current patent system for drugs allows the patent to expire over time, and the information the drug company submitted for the patent is public information, allowing competitors to quickly catch up on the originators research. Absent the patent system there would be nothing requiring the drug company to disclose the method by which it synthesized a drug, and so they could keep control over their ideas for as long as their employees honored their non disclosure agreements. These are all very strong motivators for research investment not only in medicine, but in all manner of technologies.

Music is something millions of people produce purely for the fact that they love doing it, music is not going to disappear in the absence of the State, far from it. Artists can make money from playing concerts, signing autographs, and even selling their recordings at a fair market value without the government’s help.

Computer software can be built with copy protections, as it already is. There is no shortage of software piracy today, and Microsoft still makes billions of dollars, because most people would just rather buy the software than download something that someone reversed engineered to bypass the copy protection.

Trademarks are completely unnecessary in a society that rejects fraud. If I start labeling motor oil as Coca Cola, I’m defrauding and assaulting my customers. Their dispute resolution agencies are going to quickly put a stop to that activity without the assistance of the Coca Cola bottling company or the United States Federal Government.

Plagiarism can be dealt with through reputation, if I were in the habit of taking ideas from a guy like Stephan Kinsella and not linking to his website, people would pretty quickly lose interest and stop reading my blog.

Did I mention that I’m not the first person to use this title to talk about intellectual property?

If you copy this article I will erect a global system of violence and coercion to break into your house and kidnap you in front of your children and put you in a cage with a rapist, I’ll make that okay by calling it “law”. Unless you link back to this blog and keep my html intact, in which case, we’re cool.

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  • Jenny

    Well I’m actually impressed with the content and examples, very nicely put that even I could understand. Though I did feel let down at the end, feeling that you could have gone on a bit longer. Good work Cantwell, I look forward to reading more soon.

    • Chris

      When you got content this good, it’s hard to leave the reader completely satisfied, they always want more… 🙂

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  • Well-written, and it tracks well to my own journey regarding a conclusion on intellectual property.

    I have some problems with the unbounded non-compensatory ownership of land/natural resources too because it can deny self-ownership/self-actualization at a certain point. I’m a proviso Lockean, but I want the proviso enforced by social norms and market mechanisms, not a state.

  • Jon

    Read this article then saw the copyright at the bottom of the page….hilarity ensued lol