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An Objectivist Recants on IP

On the Mises blog, I noticed one of the frequent commentators on IP-related blog threads, one Bala, used to defend the IP position but of late had been taking an anti-IP position. We discussed this privately and I asked him to give me a short write-up about his thought process as he changed his mind on this issue. I find such “conversion” stories interesting, and have seen it in others as well–myself, Jeff Tucker, etc. He sent it to me; I append it below.

Pro-IP to Anti-IP:
The Transformation of an Objectivist

by S Balasubramanian

[The author resides in Chennai, India, and has a B Tech (Aerospace Engineering)--Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras ('94), PGDM (equivalent of an MBA)--Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad ('98). He is a businessman, running a test prep company that trains students for competitive examinations for admissions to institutions of higher education, especially for those aspiring to get into the top B-Schools in India. He also recently started a pre-school which he hopes to build into a full-fledged school.]

It was in August of 2009 that I stumbled, or rather fumbled, my way into mises.org. I was guided to LvMI by none other than the Ayn Rand Institute, which referred LvMI as the place to go to if I wanted to get any understanding at all of economics, especially capitalism. As a long-time fan of Ayn Rand, having read a lot of her fiction as well as non-fiction and actually applying the basic principles of Objectivism in my daily life, I decided to take the tip seriously.

Pretty much to my shock, almost the first thing I came across was a little Rand-bashing and, worse, a denunciation of an idea Rand had explained as being the cornerstone of property rights – that of Intellectual Property.

The ideas I came in with

My ideas on intellectual property were formed almost completely based on Rand’s arguments justifying the idea. It all begins with the fundamental premises that:

  1. Ideas are legitimate property;
  2. Ideas owe their existence to the person who originated or “created them” and hence morally “belong” to the creator.
    1. It is important for a reader to understand that Objectivists use the term “morally” differently. Morality, to an Objectivist, is a code of values that guides man’s actions in the face of choices. It is rationally derived starting with recognition of the Objective reality that we are a part of. It is not a set of edicts or diktats from a higher authority.
    2. Those who copy ideas deprive the creators of the value that should rightfully accrue to them and are hence guilty of stealing (the emphasis is on “rightfully” as it flows from point 2 above).
    3. It is the fundamental responsibility of government to protect individual rights, property rights being the most important of man’s rights.
    4. A system of patent & copyrights is a way by which creators register their claim to creating ideas, a means by which they inform all interested parties as to whose property an idea is
    5. Infringement of patents and copyrights is a violation of property rights and government enforcement of patent & copyright laws is legitimate protection of property rights.

Questions that troubled me

In the course of some heated discussions, a few interesting questions came up for which I had to reach deep inside to find the answers

  1. How do you reconcile the facts that recognising and enforcing IP essentially gives some people a right to the physical property of others?
  2. How can ideas and patterns be property?
  3. How do you propose to enforce IP except through the State machinery? Considering that the State has never demonstrated any tendency other than for evil, how is this consistent with the advancement of Liberty?

What made me realise the error in my (and the “orthodox” Objectivist) position on IP

To cut a long thing short, the moment I realised that there is a conflict between rights to intellectual property and rights to physical property, I also realised that something is wrong about the whole thing. Such a contradiction usually means that something is wrong with the premises of the person facing the contradiction – me.

Restricting a person from giving physical shape to an idea he has in his mind is clearly a violation of his Liberty and Property Rights. However, this is precisely what implementation of IP means. IP proponents typically tent to retort saying that what I am calling “violation of Liberty and Property Rights” is actually implementation of the property rights of the owner of the idea/pattern that is the subject of the IP.

If it is true that in the name of protecting Intellectual Property Rights, one is actually violating the Liberty of some individuals, in effect one is also saying that the holders of Intellectual Property have an undefined lien on the Liberty of the individuals of the other part. Translated, this gives some individuals the right to enslave others by virtue of being holders of Intellectual Property rights. This made the notion all the more bizarre to me. It was in direct contradiction of the most basic principles of Objectivism that no man may claim the right to initiate force against another.

This led me to realise that there is a fundamental problem in the way different people were defining the concept “property”. At least, the way Objectivists seem to be defining “property”, they are setting themselves up for a conflict between the right to physical property and the right to Liberty on one side and the right to Intellectual Property on the other.

The answer, to me, was to obtain clarity on the relationship between the Right to Liberty and the Right to Property. The question I was trying to answer was “Which of the 2 rights is more fundamental to human nature?”. If Liberty is more fundamental to human nature, it would be futile to define Property independent of Liberty because such a definition is bound to lead to a contradiction.

Liberty or Property – Which is more fundamental?

To me, the answer was obvious – Liberty. The Right to Liberty is a logical corollary of the Right to Life and is in fact a restatement of the latter focusing on a specific part of it. The Right to Liberty, as per Objectivism, is nothing more than the freedom to act as per the judgement of one’s rational mind. Action being essential to life and in fact being an integral and inviolable part of the definition of the concept “Life” (a sequence of self-generated self-sustaining actions), violation of the Right to Liberty is a violation of the Right to Life itself.

Once again taking from Rand herself, value is that which you act to gain or keep. Thus, gaining or keeping value is impossible unless one is free to act. Thus, it is futile to place “property”, which is nothing more than the value one acts to gain or keep with the aim of sustaining one’s life, above that which is a prerequisite to the process of gaining or keeping value, i.e., action. Translating this into a simple inequality,

Right to Life > Right to Liberty > Right to Property

Therefore, the choice was clear – to define the concept “property” in terms of the more fundamental concept “liberty”. The outcome is bound to be a non-contradictory system of Property Rights where it is possible for Liberty and Property Rights to coexist.

Defining the concept “Property”

(The most fundamental premise I used in this discussion is that initiating force against another is a violation of his Right to Liberty. As per my limited understanding of Objectivism, this is how Ayn Rand defined Liberty.)

Objects exist in 3 states – existent, possession and property. An apple exists. When I hold the apple in my hands, it is in my possession. When my possession is morally justified, i.e., when the apple “ought” to be in my possession, it is deemed my “property”.

Clearly, not every “possession” is “property”. That raises the question how and when a “possession” becomes “property”. The answer to the question is to be found by a study of the morality of the actions that went into gaining and keeping “possession”. If you obtain possession the “right” way, it is morally yours, i.e., you are better off with it than without. On the other hand, if you did something “wrong” in the process of gaining possession, it is not morally yours, i.e., you are better off without it than with it. Objectivists in particular should have no difficulty evaluating issues from a moral perspective and to talk of issues like “right” and “wrong” because they ought to be used to deriving these logically from reality, which they consider absolute.

From an Objectivist perspective, there is only 1 “wrong” that a man can commit in the process of gaining possession of an existent – that is to initiate force against other men in the process. Thus, possessions to gain which man has to necessarily initiate force against others will not get moral sanction. Such possessions cannot be considered property.

Equally fundamental to the concept “property” is the right to exclude others from total or partial enjoyment of the value that the property holds. Exclusion of others requires specific actions from the person in possession of an object. The nature of the actions one needs to undertake in order to exclude others from one’s possessions also influences the moral status of the possession in question. If excluding others requires retaliatory force only, such exclusion would be a morally sound action. If, on the other hand, exclusion itself involves initiation of force, it would naturally be immoral and the author cannot exclude and be right at the same time. Such possessions that create contradictions by their very nature cannot and should not be deemed property.

Applying this idea to the 2 broad categories of property – physical and intellectual, physical possessions clearly justify the use of the term “property” to denote their ownership. The taking possession of or the exclusion of others from physical objects does not necessarily involve initiation of force. On the other hand, the taking away of a physical good without the consent of the legitimate owner always involves the initiation of force. Thus, the statement “no man shall take away the physical property of another man without his consent” is equivalent to saying that “one man may not initiate force against another”. In this sense, it is no different from the basic Objectivist principle of non-initiation of force.

Ideas and patterns, on the other hand, presented a problem when I tried to treat them as “property”. While there is no denying the value of ideas in human advancement, exclusion of other individuals from an idea or pattern necessarily involves the initiation of force. For instance, how else is A to prevent B from incorporating A’s idea in his B’s product other than to force himself upon B’s property and coerce B to prevent him from doing so, thus violating B’s Liberty? In effect, recognising ideas and patterns as property is tantamount to saying that A has a moral right to initiate force against B simply because he has coined an idea. Thus, as an Objectivist, classifying ideas and patterns as “property” takes me into dangerous territory where I am ready to label the initiation of force as legitimate.

Even worse than the above is to codify IP into law and giving the State and its machinery additional legitimacy engage in rampant violation of Liberty. As an Objectivist, I hate the State as much as anyone else can. To see the State as an ally just because it is the only agency capable of enforcing Intellectual Property Rights is downright immoral. I realised that once there, there was no turning back. I become as evil as the very collectivists and statists that I am trying to condemn and fight against.

I am now left with a very moral choice – do I or do I not recognise ideas and patterns as “property”. If I should remain true to my Objectivist roots (which I value for good reason), my only option is to apologise to Rand for disagreeing with her strongly and telling her that she was wrong on this one and that I am not ready to apply the label “property” to ideas and patterns.

(While in the above analysis, I might appear to be going in circles around essentially 1 idea, the non-initiation of force, given that that principle is the most important Objectivist social principle, the one that defines how an individual ought to deal with the society he lives in, I do not think I am guilty of circular reasoning. Rather, I am making my axioms clear and validating all my conclusions against my axioms.)


An Objectivist cannot and should not support the notion of Intellectual Property because it violates fundamental Objectivist principles. Rejecting the validity of “Intellectual Property” does not mean that one is rejecting Objectivism. Anyone who claims otherwise needs to be reminded of Ayn Rand’s warnings against package deals. He who wishes to say “Rand said otherwise” needs to be reminded of Rand’s other very important point – that no human may consider himself or any other human being to be infallible, not even Ayn Rand herself.

[Mises crosspost; AM crosspost]


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