Everything Wrong With The Libertarian Movement, Part 2: IP

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about what was wrong with the libertarian movement today, the mistakes and missteps we’ve perpetuated. I’ve been working on continuing the series, but there are several issues that are all complex. My initial post was more about the PR angle of it; the next three deal with actual philosophy. The three major problems that I see—and will explore in individual posts—is the current debate over intellectual property rights, the preoccupation with Rothbardian/Rockwellian anarcho-capitalism, and what I see as indequate foreign policy positions. All three of which, I think, make libertarianism look immature and unserious, and threaten its viability with the American public.

In this post, I’ll look into intellectual property rights; also, take a look at my first post, as well as read Tom Knighton’s excellent post on being more inclusive to moderate libertarians, and even letting them run the movement. But first, let’s look at IPR.

Many libertarians—not all, but many—are part of the anti-intellectual property movement. They argue that copyright is wrong, that one cannot have property rights in a mere idea, and that filesharing and data piracy should be completely legit and permissible. The main foundation for this position is that digital goods and intellectual goods cannot be scarce, thus you can’t have property in them. Stephen Kinsella, furthermore, argues over at Mises that this is theft—intellectual property rights would give A control over B’s property, by telling B not to use his or her property in certain ways.

All of this is balderdash.

One could, potentially, say that what Kinsella is arguing is utterly idiotic, but I won’t, because it comes from a simple misunderstanding of what intellectual property rights really are. This misunderstanding, in turn, is promoted by many, many parties, so we must forgive him (and others who make similar statements.)

First of all, intellectual property is not about copyrighting ideas. This is completely mistaken. No one who is being serious about intellectual property is saying that we’re trying to copyright such intangible things as ideas. There’s no way to do it. It doesn’t happen. You can’t put property rights in something that’s even less physical than individual oxygen molecules floating around in the air. What it is actually about is the result of said idea; give a basic idea to two completely different creators—say, Steven King and Steven Spielberg—and you will come up with two completely different results. Neither has violated the right of the other simply by using the same basic idea—otherwise, every story today would be a violation of IPR. (Remember the old line of there only being about seven different stories in existence?) So let’s set aside that hoary chestnut and move on.

Second, intellectual property rights have nothing to do with Lockean notions of property. They just don’t. What Locke was going on about was physical items, land, your body, etc., and preventing them from being forcibly taken away from you.

Obviously, no one can take away your “idea” for a story or creative work. Calling the entire notion “intellectual property rights” is a horrible misnomer that has confused everyone.

What intellectual property really is is an incentive system for people to produce. We recognize that incentives encourage people to do things. It’s why public transit is made of fail; it’s why government programs almost always fail; it’s why entrepreneurs go out and create crazy inventions that nobody thinks are needed or will succeed. Think Twitter, Facebook, Apple, even things like the Dollar Shave Club. But the same is true in artistic endeavors.

Sure, a lot of artists like to say they don’t care about money…until the rent is due. Even George Lucas, when he made Star Wars, probably wasn’t thinking that much about its commercial success, but he still wanted to make something, to pay the bills and eat food. Let’s face it, money is a powerful incentive. And why should we rob artists of their due, for all their effort?

Take away IP, and there will be a dramatically more barren artistic sphere. No one will want to put in the amount of effort required to make a film, or a novel, or an album, because they won’t get anything out of it. Sure, you have—at least in the musical realm—some people who go that route, but they’re either already very rich and famous (Nine Inch Nails) or they don’t really seem to go anywhere (any of the guys on Jamendo. Don’t get me wrong, I like some of the stuff there…but you won’t be hearing them on the radio or in a commercial any time soon.)

You have a right to gain compensation for your work, at a rate that you can agree to with another. But that doesn’t mean that the other party can just say “zero” and take what you made. It doesn’t work that way, and for libertarians, it basically amounts to “We just want shit and don’t want to pay for it.” That’s an incredibly immature thinking pattern, and I think it runs counter to what libertarianism is all about. Taking things? Isn’t that, like, socialism?

If we want to be taken seriously, libertarians must ditch the anti-IP movement. Sure, we can all join forces and protest clear overreaches such as SOPA, and propose alternatives such as allowing people to have copyrights for 25 years and then put things into public domain, but this idea that intellectual property is wrong is, well, wrong. And yes, I know that a lot of people in the country download and pirate stuff all the time (and most of that is because companies don’t have good business sense and ludicrously overcharge and over-restrict usages), but really, when one of your primary tenets is that you just want to take what you want, you still look like a douche.

I’m not really an Objectivist (maybe a post-Objectivist…and even that’s a stretch), and I disagree with Objectivists on some key issues, but Ayn Rand was still a smart lady, and she made some very good points on IP. From the Ayn Rand Lexicon:

Patents and copyrights are the legal implementation of the base of all property rights: a man’s right to the product of his mind.

And that’s really it. A man has a right to profit from what he has created. Doesn’t that apply in every other instance? Why not in intellectual products as well? That’s a glaring inconsistency libertarianism doesn’t seem to want to address.

Libertarians, ditch anti-IP. Argue for better changes in the economic structure of informational goods; argue against such ludicrous bills such as SOPA and PIPA; argue for new ways of using such things like Creative Commons; but, for the love of John Locke, don’t say that intellectual property doesn’t exist. It’s an insult to creative artists and a disservice to all libertarians everywhere.


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