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    Intellectual property

    Robert Romero
    By Robert Romero,

    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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