Oct 112009

A tongue-in-cheek post by Justin Kownacki and a debate at Podcamp Pittsburgh 4 with Justin, Tami Dixon, Steve Klabnik, and Nick Pinkston has inspired some thoughts about intellectual property (IP). I can’t shake the feeling that the debate could have been more fruitful if some terms had been explicitly defined. Let’s see if I can sum up the gist of Steve and Nick’s point. Afterward, I’ll offer some suggestions for continuing the discussion.

If I understand them correctly, Steve and Nick are arguing the following.

  • Premises
    1. Every person has a right to be secure in his life, liberty, and property. (Watch “The Philosophy Liberty” if this is a new concept to you.)
    2. The purpose of law is to protect these rights (ala classical liberalism or libertarianism).
    3. A person may dispose of his property as he pleases.
    4. Nobody has a right to take my property by coercion or force.
    5. Property is defined as any physical entity that is owned by a person or jointly by a group of persons.
    6. Intellectual property is defined as “a number of distinct types of legal monopolies over creations of the mind, both artistic and commercial, and the corresponding fields of law”.
    7. Monopolies are antithetical to free competition in an open market.
    8. Monopolies on ideas are especially harmful because they stifle the free spread of beneficial ideas throughout society.
    9. The labor theories of value, defined as “economic theories of value according to which the values of commodities are related to the labour needed to produce them”, and all intrinsic value theories, are bunkum.
    10. The subjective theory of value, defined as “an economic theory of value that holds that to possess value an object must be both useful and scarce, with the extent of that value dependent upon the ability of an object to satisfy the wants of any given individual” and distinguishing between value, per se, and exchange value or price, is correct.
    11. Ideas are not economic goods, i.e., good that are scarce, but free goods, defined as “available in as great a quantity as desired with zero opportunity cost to society”.
  • Conclusion
    1. Ideas, being intangible, cannot be property.
    2. Ideas, not being scarce, have no market exchange or economic value.
    3. “Intellectual property”, understood as “idea property” is a meaningless concept.
    4. Monopolizing a free good has no proper place in copyright and related law.
    5. Since ideas, once expressed for consumption by others, should not be protected, creators can only expect their ideas to have economic value when first expressed, i.e., before they’re reproduced at low or zero cost to others.
    6. If someone copies your ideas, suck it up. Life’s hard; wear a helmet.

I’ve done my best to translate what I think I’ve understood of Steve and Nick’s arguments into more concrete and clearly defined terms. If I’ve misrepresented them, I’m sure they’ll let me know in the comments section. 🙂

I offer the following thoughts (in no particular order) as suggestions for possible rebuttals. If they are inadequate for Justin, I’m sure he’ll let me know in the comments section. 😉

  • Are ideas really free goods? Are they really not scarce? Are there really no opportunity costs? The life of a person, being finite, is a scarce good, so a person’s ideas are scarce goods. Except in rare cases of spontaneous inspiration, ideas have opportunity costs; a creator could have been doing something else while spending time in “idle” thought.
  • If ideas have no intrinsic or economic value, is creating ideas a luxury only the rich can afford (because they can afford resource and opportunity costs without compromising their ability to meet basic needs)?
  • Must a good be tangible to have economic value? When you buy a book, are you just buying the nice “value added” features of an attractive presentation, a convenient and portable medium, etc., or do you want a copy of a body of ideas to read? Can a book really be judged by its cover (or at least its medium)?
  • If consumers are willing to pay for ideas (think tanks, consultants, intelligence etc.), aren’t they de facto economic goods?
  • If ideas, such as stories, increase the value of the paper they’re printed on, aren’t they de facto economic goods?
  • Isn’t there a difference between a good that could be reproduced at low or zero cost and one that has been widely reproduced, just as there’s a difference between potential and kinetic energy? Is it unethical to use law to make certain free goods scarce, for at least a brief period of time?
  • Should trade secrets, such as the formula for Coca-cola, not be permitted? Should proprietary formulae, recipes, techniques, plans, etc. be eschewed in favor of free access for all?
  • Should reverse engineering be permitted?
  • Without protection for ideas, won’t entrepreneurship suffer? The risks involved in committing resources and paying opportunity costs are compensated for by the prospect of potential reward. If someone can legally copy someone else’s idea for free, i.e., without facing any of the risks faced by the idea’s originator, why would anyone want to accept the risks of idea creation?
  • Is copying ideas without permission contrary to dignity?

Let the commenting begin! 🙂

Update 10/12/09: I’ve added an additional possible rebuttal and will continue to add them as they come to me until the first substantive comment is posted. At that point, I’ll treat the post as static and only make spelling or grammar corrections.

available in as great a quantity as desired with zero opportunity cost to society.