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Robert Romero

Intellectual property

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I’ve enjoyed reading Ayn Rand and listening to lectures by the Ayn Rand Institute.  I do disagree, however, with the Objectivist position on intellectual property, based on my reading of the book Against Intellectual Property, by Stephan Kinsella.   The objection to intellectual property is as follows:

Individualists are strongly in favor of property rights, but we must ask why do we want property rights?  We want them because property is scarce.  If someone takes your land, your car, or your phone, you lose the use of it.  But if something is superabundant, we do not talk about property rights to it.  For example, no one talks about property rights to atmospheric air.  It’s superabundant and free.  No one says “you’re breathing my air”.  That fact that I’m breathing does not impinge on your breathing.  Property rights are meaningless in this case.

Suppose you had a bagel, and I have the ability to make a perfect copy of it simply by having knowledge of it.  In doing so, I do not impinge on your use of your bagel.  You can eat it, sell it, do whatever you want with it.  This situation would involve no scarcity, no taking of property, similar to atmospheric air.

So it is with ideas.  By gaining knowledge of your idea, I’m in essence making a copy of it.  You still have full use of it.  Therefore, nothing has been taken in a property rights sense.  Ideas are not scarce.  They are infinitely copyable with no loss of use by the person they are copied from.

Example:   People are living in a forest.  Someone comes up with the idea of building a log cabin.  His neighbors observe him building it, and say “hey, that’s a great idea!”  They all proceed to build one for themselves , using THEIR own land, THEIR own materials, THEIR own labor, etc.  Some of them even improve on the design.   The logic of intellectual property is that what the neighbors did would be wrong, because they “took his idea”.  But what “property right” has been violated here?  Has the originator’s physical property been taken?  No.  Has he lost any use of his physical property?  No.   Has the idea of a log cabin been removed from his mind?  No.   Is he still able to use that idea?  Yes.  Has he been coerced in any way?    No.  Is he not able to enjoy the fruits of his labor, ie the log cabin?  No.  He has FULL use of it.  Indeed, the fact that some people took his idea and improved on it is to everyone’s benefit.  None of the things that apply to the taking of property apply here.

It might be argued that the “taking” of “his” idea about a log cabin means a loss of value to him.   Perhaps he planned to start a log cabin business, which will not be able to make as much money, because others can do the same.  Perhaps he simply laments a potential loss of value in his log cabin.

This is not, however, a valid objection, because he has no property right to the value of his property.  The value of his property is whatever potential buyers are willing to pay for it.  He can no more object to the loss of value than someone who decides to sell his car, and laments the fact that another seller of the same make and model car undercuts his asking price.  Tough luck.

Furthermore, the concept of the idea of a log cabin being intellectual property has terrible implications.  Exercising his “intellectual property right” would mean that he has coercive power over how his neighbors (indeed, even the entire world based on contemporary court cases) use THEIR property and even their minds, even though doing so involves no force against him, no prevention of the use of his property or his mind, and no fraud against him.  I don’t think this can be considered a good thing at all.  The sharing of knowledge is a good thing.  This very forum is evidence of that.

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IP is about application of ideas, not ideas alone. Having an idea or learning idea is not enough on its own to say you own anything. Property is about establishing value, not managing scarcity. No one values air much, so no one would buy it.  Air on Mars would be valuable if you lived there. The question is, what makes something valuable? It's not -air- that's valuable, it's a specific use that's valuable. For Objectivism, all property is essentially intellectual like that.

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Air isn't valuable because it's superabundant.  Using it doesn't deprive anyone else of its use.  If you can't be deprived of the use of something simply because others use it, then you can't be deprived of ownership of it.   The situation on Mars would be different, because air would be scarce, not superabundant.

Edited by Robert Romero

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Air isn't valuable because it's superabundant. 

Land is superabundant. Therefore land isn't valuable?

Mars isn't different, unless you concede that it's a specific purpose that air is used for. Value here is about purpose or flourishing, not monetary value. Value comes from processes of creation and thought. Abundance just means "I've yet to think of any way to make air valuable". It's not air that matters, it is how to store air for use that matters on Mars. It's not the vinyl record itself that's valuable, it's the song (i.e. the idea that needs vinyl to be implemented). See the linked thought experiment thread.

 

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What does that have to do with anything?

It has everything to do with it.  What does ownership mean, if not the ability to use something as one sees fit?  If use of something does not result in loss of use of that something by someone else, then what "right of ownership" is lost?

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Land is superabundant. Therefore land isn't valuable?

Land is not superabundant.  It's scarce.  If A uses a piece of land, it's not available for use by B.  The vantage point in this forum's wallpaper is a perfect example.  If land was superabundant, it would be free, and using it would not prevent anyone else from using it.  But we know that's not the case.

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Sure it is. If you sleep in my front yard, I can still use land next to you. Your nap location is not interfering with my spot. The only thing not available is my exact spot. Land is literally anywhere to stand. In fact, land is more abundant than air. Why are you excluding all other planets? It's a silly question, but your notion of scarcity is not clearly stated.

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Sure it is. If you sleep in my front yard, I can still use land next to you. Your nap location is not interfering with my spot. The only thing not available is my exact spot.

But that's the point.  If you use that exact spot, it's not available for me to use.  They very fact that you have to move next to it proves that.  The same applies to the vantage point in the wallpaper. "Hey buddy, get lost, we're constructing a new office building here.  A wall is going up in front of your vantage point".   If a piece of land in Iowa is used for growing corn, it's not available for a football stadium.  This doesn't apply to air.  No one says, "move from that spot, because I own the air where you're standing".  It's meaningless to say that, because air is superabundant and using it does not prevent someone else from using it.

Edited by Robert Romero

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So, you can only own the land you stand on? The "exact spot" is only where my feet are.

"If a piece of land in Iowa is used for growing corn, it's not available for a football stadium."

Why should anyone claim the right to own a cornfield? There's a lot of places to use it simultaneously. I'll just use it when you're not there. If we divide our time, we'll all get to use it. But this all gets really silly really fast. The thing about scarcity as a principle is that we get into this questioning of where to draw the line. Scarcity can't answer it. So we use a principle in terms of what in fact establishes value: discovering a particular use for -some- idea in a realizable way. Planting all the corn and harvesting is a matter of the thought process behind it. Same if you attribute value to a song.

Anyway, ideas are scarce. If you wanna be picky, there are a finite number of ways to put together ideas. If you represent all ideas as bytes, you can work out possible ideas at a point in time. It wouldn't be 'superabundant' either, it's not as though ideas materialize from nothing. The possible ideas in 1,000 years will be different. This applies to land, since land is represented with lengths. Bytes are as tangible as length, i.e. not at all.

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All this talk about using a “sliver” of one’s property or “simultaneous” use of one’s property is an attempt to sidestep the concept of scarcity.  The fact is that virtually ALL tangible things are scarce.  The very fact that there can be conflict over these goods by multiple human actors shows this.  Atmospheric air is the very rare exception of a tangible thing that is not scarce because there is no conflict over its use or ownership.

But if something is replicable without limit, it’s a nonscarce good.  I can have one, you can have one, we can all have one.   Just as with air, conflict over ownership is nonexistent, because there is no basis for a rivalry of ownership.

So it is with an idea.  It’s infinitely copyable, because it’s knowledge.  Thomas Jefferson said it very well:

“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.”

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One of Thomas Jefferson's peers, Thomas Paine, comprised the pamphlet, "Common Sense". Were the ideas contained in that pamphlet forced onto the people that freely chose to purchase 120,000 copies of it in the first three months?

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How does use of an idea by someone else result in loss of use of that idea?

You don't lose the idea.  You lose the potential it has in trade if it is copied and used free of compensation to the artist or inventor.  Without copyrights, for example, every potential buyer of your song could simply obtain it free of charge and you will not be able to make a living as an artist.  

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All this talk about using a “sliver” of one’s property or “simultaneous” use of one’s property is an attempt to sidestep the concept of scarcity.  The fact is that virtually ALL tangible things are scarce.  

I already explained how scarcity as you mean it would apply to ideas (limited to implementations). You didn't address it at all. Besides, that's granting you're right about scarcity being fundamental to property. In any case, you didn't address the Objectivist position, which doesn't care about scarcity. We can argue all you want what is or isn't scarce. I'll just say "So what?" You seem to presume I agree that it matters for something like saying what is property.

"but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too"

Indeed. That's why thoughts aren't property. The claim for IP is about implementation of an idea. That ideas can spread is different than having the right to control specific implementations. Jefferson seems to equate the two.

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In any case, you didn't address the Objectivist position, which doesn't care about scarcity. We can argue all you want what is or isn't scarce. I'll just say "So what?" You seem to presume I agree that it matters for something like saying what is property.

If something is nonscarce, it indeed changes how we view its status with respect to property.  No one thinks about “my air”, because it’s nonscarce.  If it was possible to infinitely copy bagels, then bagels would become nonscarce, and there could not be a conflict over ownership of bagels, just as there is no conflict over ownership of air.  The concept of ownership becomes moot.

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Yeah, but who cares if there is no conflict? You have a different notion of what ownership is than the Objectivist one. I am trying to say that the Objectivist idea of property is about creating values and controlling what originated with you. Your arguments get nowhere unless you also argue why the Objectivist view is wrong.

I'll put it this way: what makes your favorite song valuable to listen to?

By the way, to clarify, IP here doesn't extend to theories/belief systems/concepts/etc; no one claims Rand owned Objectivism.

Edited by Eiuol

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You don't lose the idea.  You lose the potential it has in trade if it is copied and used free of compensation to the artist or inventor.

You don’t lose the potential in trade.  The difference is that you don’t have the exclusive ability to implement based on a government grant of monopoly.   A historical example is James Watt.

Watt’s industrialist business partner Michael Boulton used his influence in Parliament to convince them to stretch his and Watt’s patent on the steam engine to 32 years.  That kind of influence should never be supported by any opponent of government involvement in economics.

Once the patent was granted, Watt spent a great deal of energy fending off rivals using the power of government instead of using it for his own productive effort.  Jonathan Hornblower tried to produce a superior engine, and Watt shut him down with the cudgel of the legal system.  The irony is that Watt was hindered making improvements to his own engine because someone else had patented the crank and  flywheel.

It was not the case that Watt needed the patent to “realize the potential in trade”.  In fact, after the patent expired,  Watt and Boulton maintained their price and increased their orders by focusing on quality and actually producing things rather than engaging in rent seeking (ie making money via government granted privilege) .   I certainly hope that an Objectivist would prefer that money was made via actually producing something to making it via litigation and the power of the State, especially when someone actually makes more money with such production.

I also read this about the comparison of the pre and post patent eras of the steam engine:

“During the period of Watt's patents the United Kingdom added about 750 horsepower of steam engines per year. In the thirty years following Watt's patents, additional horsepower was added at a rate of more than 4,000 per year. Moreover, the fuel efficiency of steam engines changed little during the period of Watt's patent; while between 1810 and 1835 it is estimated to have increased by a factor of five.”

So the absence of the Watt patent made more money for him, made steam engines more prevalent, and increased their efficiency.  I think that’s convincing evidence that everyone was better off WITHOUT a patent.

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I certainly hope that an Objectivist would prefer that money was made via actually producing something to making it via litigation and the power of the State, especially when someone actually makes more money with such production.

This would presume that it is money, or wealth, that lies at the heart of the issue.

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This would presume that it is money, or wealth, that lies at the heart of the issue.

The point is that Watt wound up sacrificing nothing in the absence of his patent.  That fact is very much central to Objectivism.  He actually benefited, as did the people he and other makers of steam engines sold them to.  Such a benefit via trade based on mutual rational self interest is also at the heart of Objectivism.

Edited by Robert Romero

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Watt’s industrialist business partner Michael Boulton used his influence in Parliament to convince them to stretch his and Watt’s patent on the steam engine to 32 years.  That kind of influence should never be supported by any opponent of government involvement in economics.

This answers a different question, about how well a system of IP was implemented, or if the system protects individual rights. You'd probably say IP inherently violates individual rights, but that's not what you've shown. All I got here is that the British government had a bad system in place. If it disproves IP, It'd be like saying a capitalist leaning albeit mixed economy shows capitalism is bad.

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