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KOL236 | Intellectual Nonsense: Fallacious Arguments for IP (Libertopia 2012)


Kinsella on Liberty Podcast, Episode 236.

[Update: a transcript is now available.]

At Libertopia 2012, I delivered a 45-minute talk , “Intellectual Nonsense: Fallacious Arguments for IP” (Oct. 12, 2012), the slides for which are below. I spoke for 45 minutes—well, 40, then the last 5 were taken up by a question from J. Neil Schulman—but only covered the first 25 slides. I covered most of the remaining 41 in a separate recording, Part 2: KOL237.

This episode covers issues in the first 25 slides, including:

  • Overview of case against IP: purpose of property
    • patent and copyright: as negative servitudes
  • Absurd Arguments for IP
  • “Serious” Arguments for IP
  • Libertarian Property “Creationism”
    • Rand on rearrangement
  • Good ideas are scarce!
  • IP is just like “property”!
  • All property rights are limited/no property rights are “absolute”
  • Absolute property rights
  • We should “balance” innovation/IP vs. free speech
  • Roots of copyright: censorship
  • Balance: between copyright and freedom of speech
  • Hollywood blockbuster movies vs. Youtube/Internet freedom
  • We should “balance” innovation/IP vs. free speech
  • IP is not a monopoly!
    • Origin of modern patents
  • Liberty is good, but not our “only value”

(Previously posted as here: Intellectual Nonsense: Fallacious Arguments for IP (Libertopia 2012) (Oct. 13, 2012). See also See also:  There are No Good Arguments for Intellectual Property.)

At Libertopia, I also participated in an hour-long IP panel with Charles Johnson, moderated by Butler Shaffer. It is presented in Part 3, KOL238.

Update: I thought of one more argument that I forgot to cover in the slides and talk. It is the argument made by Silas Barta that (a) some libertarians support rights in airwaves (electromagnetic spectra); but (b) if you support airwave rights you have no basis to object to rights in other nonscarce resources like inventions or patterns of information (see Why Airwaves (Electromagnetic Spectra) Are (Arguably) Property). [Update: See also Silas Barta: The shortest, safest libertarian case [sic] for IP]

There are several problems with this argument. First, not all libertarians support rights in EM spectra. So they are not committed to favor IP rights, even by Barta’s argument.

Second, even if EM spectra ought to be homesteadable, it does not mean that patterns of information ought to be. This is because EM spectra are actually scarce resources, while patterns of information are not. IP proponents typically grudgingly admit, when pressed, that EM spectra are  scarce but patterns of information—knowledge—is not, but they then shift to the argument that the monopoly over information leads to a “right to exploit” the monopoly, which leads to acquisition of profit (money), which is a scarce resource. The problem with the latter maneuver is that the profit comes from money voluntarily handed over to a seller by a customer. But the customer owns his money until he chooses to spend it. No other person has any property right claim in other people’s money or, thus, in any possible future income stream or profits.

Third, even if support of airwave property rights were to imply some type of possible rights in information or the right-to-exploit information, it does not imply that legislated IP rights systems like patent and copyright are justified (see, e.g., Legislation and Law in a Free Society). The advocate of an IP system that is somehow compatible with EM spectra rights has the burden of making a positive obligation for this system, and specifying its details. He can’t just say that IP is justified just because some of its opponents favor EM rights or are confused on the EM issue.

Finally, and to complement the previous point: even if you can argue that EM rights are valid, and do somehow impinge on normal property rights in scarce resources (which I disagree with), this does not mean that “anything goes”, that just any limits on property rights in scarce resources are justified (and this is a point I emphasized in the lecture—see slides 14-15, and my posts The Non-Aggression Principle as a Limit on Action, Not on Property RightsIP and Aggression as Limits on Property Rights: How They Differ). Again, the IP proponent would need to put forth a positive argument for IP rights. It cannot be established by criticizing its critics. As an analogy: suppose someone believes conscription is justified, but also opposes rape. You cannot show that rape is justified just because some people are wrong on conscription; you cannot even show that rape is justified if conscription is justified.

Another argument I sometimes hear is exemplified here:

By such a viewpoint there’s nothing wrong with raiding an online bank account – how can the account holder claim to own something as arcane as electronic digits? People can’t claim to own electricity or numbers hence they can’t claim ownership of so-called electronic money let alone complain when they’re account is gone. For anyone to claim ownership of money it has been made out of a physical medium such as paper or metal, right?

In other words, we all believe it’s wrong to get into someone’s bank account; yet this requires something similar to IP—ownership of nonscarce things. Therefore, if it’s okay to own money in a bank, why not the patterns of information protected by patent and copyright. Well: in a free society, money would be gold, a scarce thing. You don’t need anything IP-like to protect property rights in such scarce resources. Pointing to the fiat money created by the state and related rules hardly justifies the state creating property rights in ideas. Further, even in today’s fiat society world, we can say that it’s a rights violation for someone to access your bank account, because to do that requires accessing scarce resources owned by the bank, and when deception is used, this is fraudulent: the deceptive person gains entry under false pretenses, meaning that the consent given by the bank is not valid, meaning that he is committing a form of trespass. (For more discussion of related issues, see my post Why Spam is Trespass.) (A similar argument is made by Jamie McEwan; see  Yeager and Other Letters Re Liberty article “Libertarianism and Intellectual Property”).


{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Dennis New February 11, 2018, 8:16 am

    About raiding online bank accounts, I don’t think it’s so simple, as was demonstrated by a big “hack”/”exploit”/”legal loophole” in the Ethereum (scam :p) network (which caused the entire network to hard-fork to a new chain or something)… the “hacker” was simply following the protocol, as any hacker does. It’s not obvious what the difference is between “hacking” and picking up money left alone on a park bench.

    (It’s also very debatable whether gold would be the money of choice in a free society, compared to bitcoin, so this issue becomes especially relevant.)

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