IP: Friend or Foe?


Philosophically, this is a difficult subject for me. I’ve had quite a time wrestling with the ideas, especially as they were presented in Against Intellectual Property by Kinsella (for which the copyright is held by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, ironically). The article seems to present an airtight case that the government-sanctioned defense of intellectual property rights is not only logically flawed, but that the practice actually infringes upon each individual’s tangible property rights.

Give Me Liberty, or Give Me…Free Media!

As a consumer, of course I am enticed by the idea that the media entertainment I enjoy could be obtained for free, and I wonder how many outspoken, anti-IP, self-proclaimed libertarians are just advocates because of what they perceive as an avenue (or justification) to access free entertainment. That was the feeling I got from the Case Against IP video when I watched it, although to look at his website, Adam Kokesh has made quite a hobby of promoting the cause of freedom as he sees it, so maybe in his case it is more than trying to save a buck.

Logically, I can’t refute that tangible property and intellectual property are extremely different; one is scarce, and the other virtually unlimited. Because of this, is seems wrong to grant an arbitrary monopoly on the ideas and artistic works to the creators of those works simply because they came up with it. After all, it doesn’t take away from their iteration of the work if I create a perfect digital copy and use it for myself. Neither can I dispute that it seems the enforcement of IP rights by the government would infringe upon my rights to do what I want with my physical property, if I chose to copy someone else’s creative work. Furthermore, I really can’t say that I believe the utilitarian argument for intellectual property rights, that they increase productivity and creativity by restricting ownership of creative work to those who created it.

The Volta

Still, something about the idea that all intellectual property rights are bunk doesn’t sit well with me, and I think it’s because of how I envision the world might be without copyright law. If anti-IP Libertarians got their way and copyright was abolished all media would be essentially free through file-sharing. So what incentive would there be for artists to create? Individually or in small groups, people might create for the pure enjoyment of it (which they can currently do anyway) but I think it unlikely that high budget media projects like Avengers: Endgame would be produced at all. It wouldn’t be financially sound to do so, and a few friends aren’t going to get together and make something in their spare time that rivals a high-budget film production for entertainment. Essentially the net result would likely be what this anti-piracy video describes as happening when people pirate media.

Actors, authors, musicians and other creative minds would have to give up their dream of living from their creative work, or have to sell it for an exorbitant price to the first consumer, so that they could afford to live while they created their next piece. Essentially, it would be going back to the system of patronage that existed before copyright, as described by Todd Gardiner in response to the question “How did creative artists make money before copyright?” on Quora. Artists would be dependant on extremely wealthy individuals to commision works from them or provide them with a livable income to allow them to pursue their creative passions. I can’t imagine that this system would support many artists in our day and age.

News media has already suffered in the digital age, as described by James DeLong in the Debate on IP at Reason.com. Without intellectual property rights, news would become even more beholden on revenue from advertising than it already is, and when advertisers are pulling the strings, how impartial can the news be?

Making it Personal

As a creator of media myself, I can appreciate an author’s or an artist’s desire to be paid for their work. When my father and I partner together to make a small video business covering weddings and other local events, I believe we should get paid for our work and that someone who wants to copy and distribute it should have to consult us first unless we have given permission.

On a grander scale, I don’t think that Universal Studios should be allowed to create Harry Potter World without J.K. Rowling receiving some compensation for her excellent story-crafting that has given rise to the worldwide H.P. phenomenon. Also, without intellectual property laws Harry Potter probably wouldn’t exist.

In a Perfect World

OK, so it seems that logically I can’t be satisfied with intellectual property laws, but I also think I prefer the world with them in place to how I imagine it would exist without them. If I imagine a system that would let me have my cake and eat it too–satisfying my logic, my desire for excellent media, and my empathy for artists–it would look something like this:

  • Individuals are ALWAYS allowed to use their own resources to copy the creative works of others for personal use.
  • Individuals become businesses when they create copies for resale or trade.
  • Businesses must ALWAYS have a contract with the creator of a work in order to sell copies.

Certainly there are holes in this idea, but I think it would allow electronic information to flow more freely while still giving some incentive to creative individuals to keep on creating. At the highest end of media, people would still be willing to pay for the experiences, like going to the movies, or visiting Walt Disney World, and those businesses would have to pay the people who created the work which they were utilizing.

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