COLUMN: Intellectual property is theft
Recently, college students and others who visit Wikipedia on a daily basis were met with a 24-hour blackout. The blackout in question was in protest of two pieces of legislation related to the Internet, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act.
The bills had several draconian punishments that outraged many Americans (Wikipedia clearly included). Many of the bills’ opponents stated that, if passed, the laws would effectively kill the Internet as we know it, potentially prosecuting any companies or sites found to be “facilitating” in copyright infringement.
However, there’s a much more fundamental aspect of this entire issue that needs to be discussed more openly. Hopefully, public outrage over these particularly atrocious laws will provide a platform for the message that really needs to be heard.
The time has come to abolish intellectual property.
To be clear, I’m a firm defender of actual property rights, even to an absolutist point. That’s exactly why I oppose the charade known as intellectual property.
To begin a serious discussion on intellectual property, it’s important to remember what the basis for property in tangible things is in the first place, and that’s scarcity. Not scarcity in the relative sense of being rare, but scarcity in the absolute sense of being limited at all.
For instance, consider the idea of a world where, for whatever reason, cars were relatively abundant and nearly everyone had one. Even in this context, I could still not control the use of your car at the same time that you control the use of your car.
If I take that single physical thing that is your particular car, you no longer have it. Thus, we must have property rights in order to ensure that people can use their own resources without coercion from others.
Now let’s consider a second situation. We’ll say that I “stole” your car, but it was still there in the morning. As in, I, through some magic spell of conjuration, created an exact copy of your car and drove off with that copy.
Have I actually stolen your car? I’d say not. You certainly still have exclusive rights to your particular copy of the car. I’m in no way forcing you to let your property be used in any way that goes against your will.
Furthermore, not only is an invasion of another person’s intellectual property not an invasion of anything remotely similar to their actual property rights, enforcing “intellectual property rights” is an invasion of actual property rights.
It seems hard to see how it could not be an invasion of property rights to tell someone that they aren’t legally allowed to use their own ink to form words on their own paper in a certain way. It also becomes difficult to use different words to describe banning everyone who isn’t Apple from using their own materials to make a product that performs a function judged too similar to the iPhone.
In fact, one could even say that intellectual property laws are, in essence, a government facilitation of property’s conceptual opposite: theft.
As longtime intellectual property lawyer Stephan Kinsella writes in his essay, “Against Intellectual Property,” “if property rights are recognized in non-scarce resources, this necessarily means that property rights in tangible resources are correspondingly diminished. This is because the only way to recognize ideal rights, in our real, scarce world, is to allocate rights in tangible goods. For me to have an effective patent right — a right in an idea or pattern, not in a scarce resource — means that I have some control over everyone else’s scarce resources.”
It is often objected that the purpose of intellectual property is to ensure the profitability of the tech and entertainment industries, given the problem of free-riders. While this is an issue to consider, it hardly seems like a legitimate reason for the government to enforce a monopoly on their products.
Plenty of businesses that are liable to free-rider problems, such as movie theaters, radio and others, are able to either factor in “fencing” costs (methods of excluding free riders) or find revenue streams (like commercials) that make free-riders irrelevant. Why should the entertainment or tech industries be able to put their costs of business on the rest of us by having the government enforce intellectual property law?
Yet, even as it lurks implicitly in the outrage over SOPA and PIPA, the American people have not yet come to realize the fact that intellectual property is not property. They do not see that it is, instead, a warrant for the title-holders of intellectual property claims to infringe on the property rights of everyone else.
We must make that realization. We must take the momentum of SOPA and PIPA outrage and make it consistent.
It’s not only that the penalties in those bills are disproportionate to the crime of using your own property, in a way that conflicts with no one else’s property, to copy music or films. It’s that there is no crime at all behind such action, and therefore absolutely any attempt to forcibly prohibit it would be beyond disproportionate.
Jason Byas is a philosophy junior.