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IP discussion with an engineer

On Tue, Nov 17, 2009 at 2:06 PM, [Matthew] wrote:

Hi Stephan,
I just read your article on Intellectual Property and Libertarianism at mises.org.  I’m an engineer and so am well aware of the farce we call the patent system.  I also see the absurdity of US copyrights.
The are some things I don’t yet fully understand, even after reading Mises for a year or so.  How can we get rid of copyrights and patents while still allowing there to be an incentive to create ingenious works?

I’d say: stop worrying about it. There will always be innovation. The concern of the patent proponents is there won’t be “enough.” How do they know we don’t have enough without IP? How do they know we have enough even with patents? If you worry about designing policy to make sure there is–enough? the “optimal amount”?–of innovation, why not go further–why not make the infringement penalty more severe? Why not impose jail time, or capital punishment? why not award prizes? see Re: Patents and Utilitarian Thinking Redux: Stiglitz on using Prizes to Stimulate Innovation.
I say: just get the state out. Stop worring about optimizing what people do. Protect property rights, let the free market operate. Why worry about having the optimal amount of doctors, toothpaste providers, airlines, an innovation? Is that the task of government? of the use of force? of political philosophy? No: It’s to recommend policy that protects individual rights. Forget the central planning.

I understand your metaphor with the marble statue, but much IP created today is absolutely disconnected from physical entities.  Software, and the designs of hardware, movies and so on come to mind.  Why would anyone one or any company spend money to make a movie if they have no hope of selling it, since it can be copied and redistributed worldwide for free.  Why would any engineer bother creating software if someone is just going to copy and distribute it around the world?

Why is there open source software? Open Office? Gmail? Why are people writing on blogs for free? And why did i write my articles. No one paid me.

Juts look at it simply: in the absence of IP people will still maek movies and music and write books and design products and write software. Surely you can’t say it will go to zero. So there will be SOME. So your only concern is there is not ENOUGH. This is the concern of a central planning socialst. Just forget about it.

Existing hardware engineering companies could still make money with new ideas, (but no patents), the same way they do now, by being first to market.

and by delivering products and services and by shwoing they have the best ideas and skillz and people.

However small companies and inventors would have a hard time, as soon as a big fish saw that they were profitable, they could steal the idea and run with it.  What then would be the motivation of small fish?

I just don’t get this concern. I used ot wonder why people made staples. I buy a box for $3 and it sits in a drawer for 19 years. How can they make a profit on that? But they do. If they didn’t, the price would rise till they could. Or, it wouldn’t if it was not worth it to make it.

I don’t see how software makers, movie and music makers could survive at all without copyrights, now matter how fast they were to market the capital required to reproduce and redistribute what they make is nearly zero.
People feel violated if their bodily person is violated or their property is stolen, feeling of violation is a natural human emotion under such circumstances.  Having your idea stolen feels no different.

I disagree. It is different. And, feelings are not the main barometer. Further, calling it “stealing” assumes there is property in ideas. So that’s a question-begging way of putting it.

And, people who steal ideas for their own are generally regarded as liars, or somewhat deviant, depending on the circumstances.

I don’t agree. What most people call “idea theft” is not dishonest at all. It’s called “learning.”

I think that there is some ownership of ideas which naturally decays with time.  I guess I base this on how people feel about certain actions, I can’t offer a lofty philosophical argument for this.

J. Neil Schulman does, in his article on logorights, which I think is fatally flawed. See On J. Neil Schulman’s Logorights.

I believe 17 years is too much time, and whatever mickey gets is way too much time for ownership of IP.  I also believe the scope of what people claim in patents is too broad, such as Monsanto patenting living organisms.  But I think 5 years for copyright and patent would be fair and useful.

But you have no reason for this.

I don’t see practically or philosophically how IP could be thrown out.

The burden of proof is not on us, it’s on IP advocates.
{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Andrew Lynch November 18, 2009, 12:27 am

    Matthew said: “And, people who steal ideas for their own are generally regarded as liars, or somewhat deviant, depending on the circumstances.”

    Kinsella replied: “I don’t agree. What most people call ‘idea theft’ is not dishonest at all. It’s called ‘learning.'”

    Let me give you a fiction writer’s perspective. For as long as I’ve been reading, I’ve been influenced heavily by the works of Poe, Baudelaire, Lovecraft, surrealists like Jarry, Breton, and others. Their narrative intonations, their cadence, their plot structures. Several of my stories have been called Lovecraftian, which invites an empty dialectic space where one bandies about the difference between “inspired by,” “evocative of,” “based on,” and “quite similar to.”

    I know that there are readers who love the sort of fiction I love — all of whose authors are dead. I certainly don’t consider myself a liar or a deviant when I sit down to marry what I’ve “learned” from those who came before me with what I have to say. Even if I do resort to the occasional antique spelling of foetid. 😉

    Perhaps a more sustainable analogy to Matthew’s point would be if I wrote numerous fictions about boy wizards who attend wizarding schools. A quick scan of the young-adult section of any Borders will demonstrate that the “teen magic” idea lives and thrives outside of Rowling’s head…and existed well before she showed that she could go to the head of the class with her particular interpretation. Is Rowling a liar for stealing the central conceit of the first Earthsea novel? Nope. There’s room in the world for both, and both authors made out handsomely.

    Forgive if I miss the legal angles, but the economic angles seem far more clear: more variety and competition is better, not less.

  • Paul Vahur November 18, 2009, 1:52 am

    Matthew said: “And, people who steal ideas for their own are generally regarded as liars, or somewhat deviant, depending on the circumstances.”

    I agree with that, but lying per se is not a crime (it depends of circumstances). If I were to publish a little booklet “Against Intellectual Property” under my own name it would rather quickly be obvious to anyone studying the subject that I just copied the ideas from Stephan and I am as such unreliable source. There is no point to use my expertise on the the IP question because I might not have any, it’s much useful for a customer to turn to Stephan instead.

    Same applies to software and other products. I could get a Chinese iPhone-knockoff for a few bucks, but that is certainly not the same product and not the same satisfaction.

    Just copying someone’s work and passing it on gives very little to customer and sooner-or-later they either go to the source or the “thief” needs to add his own innovation to the product to justify his middleman status.

  • Nathan Nutter November 18, 2009, 3:35 am

    This has to be one of the worst arguments I’ve ever read. Why did you even bother responding to this person if you can’t actually address any of his points with anything other than opinion?

  • RSL November 23, 2009, 12:59 pm

    Apropos to the comments of Messrs. Lynch and Vahur:
    The reason I inquire and read on the subject of IP is because of certain writers’ ability to portray it in a way I can understand (Kinsella, Tucker, et al). What I learn from the works of these writers, I will undoubtedly pay forward to others, often in writing, and since the writing style influenced me, I might use it as well. This I will do in hopes of enlightening those who might assist in the greater effort of achieving true liberty. As such, I would think that Stephan Kinsella would have no particular problem with Mr. Vahur if the latter were to copy the ideas from “Against Intellectual Property” under his own moniker and distribute them; in fact, this would represent to Stephan Kinsella a wider audience than “his” ideas might otherwise have had.
    Press on.

  • Andrew Lynch November 23, 2009, 3:07 pm

    RST: “…Stephan Kinsella would have no particular problem with Mr. Vahur if the latter were to copy the ideas from “Against Intellectual Property” under his own moniker and distribute them…”

    But in this scenario, isn’t Vahur guilty of misrepresentation, a form of fraud? I suppose if he reproduced the work as “by Paul Vahur based on the original work of Stephan Kinsella,” at least attribution spares him the risk of being called a liar.

    • Paul Vahur November 23, 2009, 3:14 pm

      Hmm, that is a good question. I don’t think that I would be lying. I would be if I added that “I’m the first person to write these thoughts down.” But if I passed it on by just changing the name, I don’t think that I am lying, technically. My name implies that I have thought such thoughts, not necessarily that I came up with them.

      Of course, in the current culture everyone would presume that these are my original words so in that sense I would be lying

      • Stephan Kinsella November 23, 2009, 3:37 pm

        I agree w/ Vahur, I think–but these debates are kind of silly. You are free right now to publish “Paul Vahur, The Nichomachean Ethics.” or Paul Vahur, romeo and Juliet. Or Paul Vahur, The Bible.

        why does no one do this? Because it’s stupid.

  • Andrew Lynch November 23, 2009, 6:26 pm

    I’ll go back to the idea of misrepresentation. How about a slightly more subtle example than someone reproducing someone else’s work as his own: how about reproducing someone else’s work inaccurately, as to demonstrate a point that is contrary to the original author’s intent?

    Ray Comfort was in the news recently for re-printing Darwin’s Origin of the Species with a new introduction. If I recall correctly, he omitted four chapters that did not support his creationist position. When called on it, he said a printing mistake had occurred and then reissued the text, but it was still missing parts. Many more details and histrionics were involved, but the incident was interesting from the standpoint of what constitutes a liar, or a fraud.

    If I understand Stephan’s position on these matters, it doesn’t really matter what Comfort did, because he was working with a public-domain text, and could add pictures of fairies and minotaurs if he so liked. Could he have gotten away with that misrepresentation if he had chosen a recently published work? Say Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth? Legally, I think I know the answer, but ethically, would Comfort be in a safe place?

  • David Glassman December 1, 2009, 11:51 pm

    As a holder of quite a few patents I believe the system is flawed. First: I could have created many more patents for Nortel and Rockwell but I didn’t. The reason was, when I obtained the patent the company gave me 1500$ and a little glass trophy. One of the patents I created was the first piece of Intelectual property for the Nortel CS 1000 system which now is used in about 50% of Fortune 500 companies for VoIP telephony services.

    Its true that I was hired as a Chief Engineer but it was not in my job requirement to invent. It was done since I thought it would help job security but that was a silly thought as I saw how the company operated. In retrospect…bad idea.

    patent filing below:


    There is only one company I am aware of that gives the inventor a “piece of the action” and that’s 3M. Many inventions are being avoided because people such as myself see no upside. This is why all the great new stuff is coming from start-ups. Compaines such as Microsoft and Cisco for example “Buy” ideas by purchasing smaller companies. Mergers and Acquisitions is a needed department in any larger company today.

    There are patents that are pretty weak and took little effort to file yet there are others that can rack the brain and cause many sleepless nights and even a marriage. In my case…for what? The 16 and now 18 year limit is fair most of the time since many products based on a patent need years to create a profit.

    As for copyrights…An author needs at least a decade since the material could become a film or a reprint based on new found popularity. What I find upsetting is that a copyright can last 2 generations or more and that’s not fair.

    What should be regulated are specific types of patents. Drug companies cry about how long it takes revover their ROA and how much the upfront CAPEX (captial expense) is. Yes, they need an incentive for profit but I knoew they can recover theor profits pretty quickly. So, 17 years is ubsurd.

    Design Patents or “D” patents are paragraph long and state what a specific image is and what product its placed on. Example of this would be a Mickey Mouse Image, 3″ x 4″ on an Ipod. Such things should be a limited copyright not a patent. These should last say 5-6 years and no more. In fact such nonsense should not even be in the patent system but under some limited copyright.

    I agree that the patent system is terrible and political. People such as me will only invent for ourselves and not some company that could give a rats ass about me Its all about the IP.

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