Bob Wenzel over at Economic Policy Journal, a site I check regularly, has been hyping up a debate between himself and Stephan Kinsella, a renowned libertarian intellectual property attorney, concerning the topic of copyright, patent, and trademark. As you may have seen on SNV before, I enjoy listening to and posting debates that stimulate and educate. I looked forward to posting this particular debate, which happened Monday. Unfortunately, the debate truly was the most ridiculous, mudslinging, name-calling, bicker-y debate I have ever heard. There was almost no substance to it, and I am extremely disappointed – it is terrible to have intellects you respect turn so petty and whiny so quickly…
I believe the main contention of the debate concerns scarcity – what is scarce and what is not. Many anarcho-capitalists, myself included, believe that IP protection is an improper use of the law, since the “goods,” that is, ideas (patent) and bits on a computer (copyright), are non-scarce, since they can be infinitely replicated without dilution of the original. This means that IP laws are an attempt to monopolize that which should be either protected by the means of the original owner/creator, or given freely to the world, for another competitor to try and sell or for humanity to have for free. I believe I have posted this argument before.
Bob Wenzel’s position seems to be that the above is incorrect because an idea/bits on a computer ARE scarce. Ideas are not everywhere at all times, and there is a reason why when you come up with an idea, you deserve protection of it. I do not think that Wenzel believes a regulatory scheme should provide this protection, but rather a type of contract law would suffice (i.e. you exchange at purchase a promise not to replicate whatever the good is).
It was unclear what Wenzel meant, exactly. I believe he is incorrect, though. Scarcity here does not mean that only one person has it. What the meaning in Kinsella’s (and my) context is that possession of the idea/bits is not exclusive/rivalrous. That is, once an idea has been let out into the world, it can be possessed by any number of people and still exist in the mind of the first guy/computer. Imagine, if you will, you are given a superhuman ability to replicate oil, or grain, or couches, at will. You can pick up any of the above and create exact replicas at will. Should the government then step in to protect all grain growers, oil drillers, or couch-makers? Many would argue yes. I would argue no, since doing so would be at the cost of people being deprived of these goods for the benefit of a few makers of the particular goods.
The most common response to that scenario is that the creation of these goods would stop entirely or substantially decrease because of the ability and tendency to do these replications. Not only do box office receipts, iTunes album sales, and distribution/sales models like that of NIN’s recent few albums show the reply to be false, myriad studies support the empirical case that “piracy” does not affect record/movie/patent sales or the economy, and they actually may aid sales. Kinsella does supplement the argument, and I would agree here as well, that as Hans Hoppe has explained many times, empirical studies do not necessarily prove something about the world to be false (I believe N. N. Taleb would agree here also), as many circumstances are a priori. A great example is “studies” that prove the minimum wage does not increase unemployment. No matter how many studies assert that this is true, it simply cannot be so, since any restriction on supply MUST come with a shortage of some kind. Saying “it is illegal for 2% of these people to work at this price” may be shown to have “no effect” on unemployment, but the methodology would necessarily be flawed, since that is, by the nature of scarcity, impossible… Back from that digression, these studies and empirical evidences against the argument that “IP laws increase the likelihood of creation of art or machine, boosting the economy” do not necessarily prove much for Kinsella or me, but they can be used to rebut the assertion from the same ground upon which the person who makes it stands.
That is about all I have to add on the matter, for now. Feel free to listen to the debate if you want to waste two hours of your life. Othewise, click the “IP” tag on SNV, (or posts here, here, and here) and you can read more about the arguments in past posts. Thanks.
once an idea has been communicated from its originator (not even always a human being!), it is in fact, for all intents and purposes, “everywhere at all times”. that is what makes an idea an idea: its unique property to be everywhere at once, at all times. ideas are capable of being spread as nothing else can be, except possibly emotions (and it can certainly be argued that there is some overlap between the two).
there is in fact a way for an individual human being to “safeguard” an idea for his or her self, and avoid it being “stolen” by others: don’t communicate it to anybody or anything! there are many ideas in my head at any given time that i consider valuable enough to not be communicated to others. perhaps it is a personal feeling that i am reluctant to let others know about. perhaps it is a clever get-rich-quick scheme that i wish to use to turn a profit. or perhaps it’s just something that i’m still thinking about, and not yet ready to share.
because once an idea is released out into the wild, at its core, that is what it is: an act of sharing. beyond anything else, this is what “ideas” are for human beings: to independently create an idea and to propagate it to others is an act of sharing part of one’s self, and it is silly to treat it any other way. the very notion of an already shared idea being someone’s “property” is just so absurd that it becomes almost impossible to think about in a serious manner….once one successfully throws off their social conditioning, that is.
ideas can be a beautiful thing, capable of bringing about astounding creation, and they can also be a terrible thing, capable of bringing about great destruction. but one thing that ideas cannot be is artificially exclusive. once they have been shared, nothing can undo what has been shared – not the one who originated the idea, not those that are exposed to the idea, and certainly not The Law.