Patents and copyrights are government monopoly grants with nothing in common with the notion of property at the heart of libertarianism.
Sheldon Richman writes: The modern libertarian case against so-called intellectual property (IP) has been building steadily since the late 1980s, when I first encountered it. Since then, an impressive volume of work has been produced from many perspectives: economics, political economy, sociology, moral and political philosophy, history, and no doubt more. It is indeed a case to be reckoned with. (Roderick Long has put together a web page with links to some of the best anti-IP material written over the last quarter century. My own contributions include “Patent Nonsense,” “Intellectual ‘Property’ Versus Real Property” and “Slave Labor and Intellectual Property.” A brief spontaneous debate that I participated in is here.)
I won’t try to recap the whole case here, but I do want to answer a question that will occur to many advocates of liberty: How can someone who supports property rights in physical objects deny property rights in intellectual products, such as the useful application of scientific principles or patterns of words, musical tones, or colors? Suffice it here to quote from “Patent Nonsense”:
There is a distinction between physical objects and ideas that is crucial to the property question. Two or more people cannot use the same pair of socks at the same time and in the same respect, but they can use the same idea — or if not the same idea, ideas with the same content. That tangible objects are scarce and finite accounts for the emergence of property rights in civilization. Considering the nature of human beings and the physical world they inhabit, if individuals are to flourish in society they need rules regarding thine and mine. But “ideal objects” are not bound by the same restrictions. Ideas can be multiplied infinitely and almost costlessly; they can be used nonrivalrously.
If I articulate an idea in front of other people, each now has his own “copy.” Yet I retain mine. However the others use their copies, it is hard to see how they have committed an injustice.
Practices respectful of private property in physical objects and land emerged spontaneously over millennia, embedded in customs that served to avert conflict in order to create space within which social beings could flourish. (See John Hasnas’s “Toward a Theory of Empirical Natural Rights” [PDF].)
In contrast, “rights” in ideas — patents and copyrights — were government monopoly grants having nothing in common with the notion of property at the heart of libertarianism. In fact, such artificial rights undermine genuine property by authorizing IP holders to enlist government power to stop other people from using their justly acquired resources and ideas. For example, if Jones (having committed no trespass) observes Smith’s invention or artistic creation, Jones could be legally stopped from using his own physical property in conjunction with ideas obtained through that observation. That sure looks as though IP bestows on Smith purported rights over Jones’s tangible property and even Jones himself. One might ask, Isn’t the idea Smith’s? But I can’t see how an idea in Jones’s mind can possibly be Smith’s, even if Smith had it first — unless Smith owns Jones, an unlibertarian notion indeed.
Can Christina Hoff Sommers Save Feminism?
Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History and Why It Matters Today, by Christina Hoff Sommers, AEI Press, 127 pages, $3.95.
Sharon Presley writes: Some libertarians look askance at feminism, seeing it only as a leftist push to use the state to benefit women. Many conservatives see it something as far worse. But Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute wants to change all that. In Freedom Feminism, Sommers sets out to provide a manifesto for moderate and conservative women (and, some say, for libertarians) because they “must be at the helm” if they are to raise broad support for the kind of feminism that she thinks is worthwhile. Sommers asserts that her “freedom feminism” is a synthesis of 19th century “radical egalitarianism” and a conservative “maternal school,” and that the results avoid the problems of leftist feminism.
This raises two questions for libertarians: Is feminism salvageable? And if so, is Sommers’ new blend the right mix?
In addressing the first question, it is useful to recognize that leftists didn’t invent feminism. Mary Wollstonecraft, the leading influence on First Wave feminism, was an individualist. So were such 19th-century American feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who believed that “nothing adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one’s self-sovereignty; the right to an equal place, everywhere conceded—a place earned by personal merit.” In addition to working for the vote, 19th-century feminists struggled to undo unjust and unfair laws that made women the property of their husbands. They sought equal rights, not governmental privilege.