Classical liberal takes on "intellectual property"

Francois-Rene Rideau
Tue, 4 Apr 2000 00:32:05 +0200

Dear Cybernethics readers,
   I've just contacted David D. Friedman,
a well-known classical liberal economist with a web page
about (among other things) free software issues.
He has written very interesting things about economics and law,
and has interesting material about "intellectual property" (quotes mine).
Here is the (long) relevant part of my reply to his reply.

>>* I am looking for prominent economists who would do a thorough debunking
>>  of Information Protectionism (aka "Intellectual Property"),
> I'm afraid I'm not the one. You can find my analysis of IP in
> Chapters 10 (property) and 11 (IP) of my new book _Law's Order_,
> forthcoming from Princeton in a few weeks. A late draft is webbed at:
Since you gave this pointer,
	I've read with interest said chapters of your book.
They are as interesting and well-written
	as promise people who recommend your works;
I'm saving the rest for a time
	when I am not as overbooked as I currently am.

> As you will see, I think the general structure of existing law is at
> least defensible on economic grounds. That doesn't mean it is
> right--I don't think we know enough to judge with confidence whether
> the world would on net be better or worse without IP--but it isn't
> obviously wrong.

Well, I've personally come with many arguments
	why intellectual property is intrinsically
	as economically inefficient as it is an essential injustice;
actually, these are the very same arguments
	as apply to any kind of protectionism.

If you're interested, a lot of what I've written is on the web,
	albeit at least half of it is in french.
I'm giving a classical liberal summary below,
	if you're interested.

Anyway, suffices it to me that
	there be no reason why IP be obviously right.
This mere fact leads me to immediately condemn IP
	as unjustified government intervention:
when in doubt, liberty must always win over restriction.
IP is Information Protectionism;
it is government lending the use of public force
	for the benefit of some private citizens and corporations.
If anyone thinks that some IP-like mechanism is good,
	let him implement his IP schemes through voluntary private adhesion,
	rather than governmental coercion.

Here below is the summary of my classical liberal arguments
	for free information against intellectual property;
skip it if you're not that much interested in IP.

As far as you view that
	"anything that can be fenced can made property"
	applies to IP,
	I find it difficult to speak of property without
	talking about whom it originally belongs to,
	and how it is transferred to someone else:
let's just admit for a moment
	that the right for someone (say me)
		to copy/use a book/idea can be owned;
	that doesn't say whom it originally belongs to.
So that government may give this right to anyone else,
	it means that government originally own it,
	or at least that it originally belongs to no one.
	But it doesn't belong to noone.
	It does belong to me already.
	Yes, it does, because copying is about
		using my own resources, my own time, etc.
	The best proof that it's mine before the government took it,
		is that if there was no government to take it,
		I would be the one who indisputably would hold it,
		because it's all about my time, my work, my business,
		and that the copyright holder wouldn't even
			have to know or be able to know
			if I copied his work or not:
			I am the one able to fence the right
				of my copying any book or idea,
				as well as the right
				of my doing anything
					with my brain and body,
					with my ink and paper,
					with my computer and network link,
	Government in no way has the right
		to transfer this right of mine to someone else,
		because that's plunder.
	Maybe socialists will argue that government is omnipotent;
	but at least, classical liberals will oppose such notion.

Of course, I may not yet have the _opportunity_ to do it
	before I somehow get my own copy of the book/idea;
But right and opportunity are separate things:
	just because I'm not rich enough doesn't
	mean I have no _right_ to purchase a masterpiece painting,
	to buy a place aboard the next space shuttle,
	or to learn english;
	if I desire them so much, I can do everything
	within the circle of my properties so as to get them,
	be it by becoming richer,
	mortgaging everything I have to borrow enough money,
	or becoming an expert in the field by my own means.
Providing me the _opportunity_ to read a great book,
	and thus also to copy it afterwards,
	is a great service to me, and I will gladly pay it pack
	to the author and to the publisher.
	But there is no right of copy for them to grant me,
	because the right is mine already.
I may be stupid enough to contractually withhold my right,
	and agree not to copy the work, ever;
	but I am the only one bound by my own word;
	if anyone else copies my copy, he's not bound by my word;
	he may be prosecuted for breaking into my house,
		if he did such thing to copy my work;
	but if he didn't, or if he got a copy from someone else,
			who did or not break into my house,
		then he hasn't done anything wrong,
		and can't and mustn't be prosecuted.

Intellectual Property is a protection racket:
	someone forces honest workers to pay,
	not for services rendered,
	but by threats of destroying the workers' businesses
	(or the workers themselves, if they resist).
The definite criterion here is the negative vs positive aspect:
	it is not a right for the owner to do active things
	about a resource and own the result,
	as with positive property;
	it is a priviledge against people who would like
	to do things with their own resources;
	it is not a right to create, it is purely a right to destroy.
Writing software or books, copying and distributing them,
	guaranteeing their contents, correcting errors,
	providing support for users, etc.:
	these are legitimate services;
	these are directly hampered, not encouraged,
	by "intellectual property".

As for the incentive for creation,
	supply of _interesting_, _original_ information
		is neither elastic, nor sensitive to demand;
	if it sensitive to anything,
	it is on the amount of intellectual activity;
	and as for any protectionism,
		the very principle of IP is precisely to _restrict_ activity.
There _is_ information whose supply is elastic and sensitive to demand:
	unoriginal, stupid, basic, vulgar, lowly and addictive information.
When you institute information protectionism,
	you don't result in any single additional masterwork;
	but you do result in a huge pile of hype,
	of worthless mind-numbing but seemingly attractive stupidity.
Actually, you move a considerable amount of resources
	from useful but unprotected activities
	(including the making of masterworks)
	into protected activities, in a way such as to maximize
	the ratio of protection per by actual original creation,
	since the latter is the unelastic resource,
	which accounts to the low signal/noise ratio
	of intellectual creation in our intellectually protectionist days.

To me, political economy is simple.
It consists in the following explanation.
	"There are two kinds of ways to
		to fulfill one's desires.
	The first is to earn the object of longing by hard and honest work,
		be it by achieving it directly by expertise,
		or indirectly by exchanging it with more qualified people
		in exchange of services you render in a field you know better
			(directly or indirectly through money).
	The second is the easy but dishonest way,
		by leading other people through force or deception
	In the economist point of view, the first way is
		to produce useful services (to oneself or to other people);
	the second way is to plunder other people
		without rendering any useful service.
	Political Economy is simply the trivial assertion
		that the system at large only benefits from the first,
		and is harmed by the latter.
	It is the assertion that
		the first way need not be encouraged,
			because everyone benefits from it
			and will freely choose it if properly informed,
		while the latter needs be discouraged,
			because it harms society exactly in proportion
			to its opposing the free choice of informed people.
	In any situation, overall wealth is better promoted by any authority
		if it publishes the information it has
			and let people decide from both this information
				and the individual information they have
		than if it uses its information
			to force a decision upon people.
	Thus, use of public force by the government
		to defeat the free choice of undeceived people
		is harmful,
			for it can but benefit
				the cheats, the crooks, the fraudsters,
			and it cannot benefit
				the honest and productive people, the workers.
	Workers who provide useful service will achieve their ends,
		by feat or by exchange,
		without the need of any protectionism.
	Only parasites who do useless things that no one would
		freely pay for (as much) voluntarily
		will benefit from protectionism.
	As a result, protectionism is detrimental to honest trades,
		and only beneficial to dishonest activities.

The reasoning applies to intellectual services
	as well as to any other activity.
In a free market,
	people really doing useful things, be they authors or inventors,
	will be paid exactly according to how useful
		the services they render are evaluated.
On the whole, only producers of useless (or even harmful) information
	will be encouraged by protectionism.

Yours freely,

[ Franēois-René ŠVB Rideau | Reflection&Cybernethics | ]
[  TUNES project for a Free Reflective Computing System  |  ]
Because people confuse information and information-related services
(which include searching, creating, processing, transforming, selecting,
teaching, making available, guaranteeing, supporting, etc), they are afraid
that Free (libre) Information mean free (gratis) information-related services,
which would indeed kill the industry of said services. On the contrary,
Free Information would create a Free Market in these services, instead of
current monopolies, which means they will be available at a fair price,
so the result would be a flourishment of that industry!       -- Faré