Intellectual Property: Enemy of Freedom and Society

By TJ Roberts | United States

You cannot own an idea. Although intellectual property is an idea Americans codified into their constitution, we must see that the idea of intellectual property is an idea that comes into direct conflict with the idea of freedom and human progress. It is important that humanity moves beyond the scourge of intellectual property so that we may live in a world that is no longer held back by corporate protectionism and inconsistent property law. But beyond that, lives are at stake in this fight.

Intellectual Property Violates Real Property

Lockean Property Norms

Perhaps the most important case against intellectual property is in its opposition to society’s property norms. The most prominent principle of property is the homesteading principle, which John Locke describes in chapter 5 of The Second Treatise on Government. In the Treatise, Locke explains that the Homesteading Principle is the idea that property can be justly acquired by two means: original appropriation and voluntary exchange. With original appropriation, the first user of a previously unowned resource becomes the de facto owner of the property. With voluntary exchange, justly acquired property may be exchanged between consenting senders and receivers. This is why theft is condemned. If I take your wallet from you without your consent, then the exchange was not voluntary and therefore violates Lockean property norms.

What is important to realize as well is that scarcity is fundamental to property. You cannot be the owner of a non-scarce good. In The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Dr. Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains that in a realm of scarcity, property norms must be established. If, somehow, all scarcity ceased to exist (this would have to include scarcity in ourselves), then property norms would not be necessary. But in this world, scarcity is the cornerstone of Lockean property theory.

Ideas are Not Scarce

Since one cannot own a non-scarce good, it is the burden of the advocate of intellectual property to prove that ideas are scarce. If they do so, then intellectual property (IP) is legitimate. It is clear, however, that ideas are not scarce, and are therefore not subject to the restrictions of private property.

Consider a world in which only one person knows that two plus two equals four. If that person reveals this knowledge to someone else, that person knows that two plus two is four and the teacher still knows this. In other words, one’s acquisition of this knowledge did not inhibit another person from gaining the same piece of knowledge, and it did not degrade the knowledge the teacher originally had either. Because of this, knowledge is not scarce. Since knowledge is not scarce, we are not able to subject ideas to property norms.

Intellectual Property Assaults Private Property

Suppose I wrote a pamphlet and I sold it to you. For the law to tell you that you cannot reprint my pamphlet and sell it to others is to tell you what you cannot do with your private property. This is prohibitive on the sovereignty of the individual and private property. This is not, of course, meant to condone plagiarism. In “Common Misconceptions about Plagiarism and Patents: A Call for an Independent Inventor Defense,” patent lawyer Stephan Kinsella shows that IP “theft” is not plagiarism. Plagiarism wouldn’t run rampant without IP. One possible alternative to intellectual property is Creative Commons, which protects the fact that you created your work all the while not restricting your work to the bureaucracy of American intellectual property law.

Intellectual Property Holds Back Progress

One of the unique benefits of a market economy is that it incentivizes innovation. The consumer is in charge and their needs and desires frequently change. Competition, therefore, is essential to a prosperous market. Intellectual Property, however, holds back competition and protects those at the top. Imagine how much better technology would be if tech companies weren’t constantly under the threat of lawsuits from their competitors. If the focus changed from protecting one’s market power to providing a quality product for their customers in order to grow in the market, the world would have higher quality products at much lower costs.

Of course, progress has occurred in society, but that has happened in spite of intellectual property, not because of it. If we didn’t have intellectual property, software would be significantly cheaper as the potential costs of copying it would drastically decline. Inevitably, the only way for software companies to make a profit would be to provide a better product than their competitors since they won’t be able to artificially increase prices if they want to stay in business. If we abolished intellectual property, we would see a new age of progress.

Intellectual Property Has a Body Count

In 2016, Martin Shkreli raised the price of a life-saving medication to $750 per pill. This led to immense public outrage. But their rage was misplaced. The reason Shkreli was able to do this wasn’t corporate greed, but because of intellectual property. If people were able to copy the drug and sell it to compete with Shkreli’s company, such a price hike would have put him out of business.

This is just one of the innumerable symptoms of the disease of intellectual property. American IP law forbids competition against new ideas, especially medicines. Since a generic is effectively illegal for years after a cure is discovered, the poor are frequently left unable to pay for these life-saving medications. The abolition of intellectual property would save lives, allowing not only for prices to fall as competition rises, but also for quality of products to rise as innovation increases.

Intellectual Property Is the Enemy of Progress

In other words, intellectual property has failed the people. It is nothing more than corporate protectionism that flies in the face of Lockean property norms that has a very real cost to humanity. If we want a society that can advance quicker, allows for competition to drive prices down, and allow for a society based on consistent property norms, then we must reject the protectionist sham that is intellectual property.

Recommended Reading

Against Intellectual PropertyStephan Kinsella

Goods, Scarce and NonscarceStephan Kinsella and Jeffrey Tucker

This post was originally published in LIFE.

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