Before Newton observed the descent of the apple, the gravity of his realization was well known. However, he was the first to establish this identification in a code that might be applied as principle to the understanding of other mysteries. As a result, the whole field of physics was born, and all of the scientific marvel which followed from it. Might Newton then be entitled to ownership, or at least a share of the ownership to all of our modern uses of gravity?
In my youth, an article appeared called The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin. At the time, it was the second most thought provoking thing I had ever read. It prompted one unfinished novel in response at a time when I was overextended with other ambitions and has recently been the seed of a new effort I am well into the midst of and hope to finish in a year or two.
The point of view with which I took issue long ago was that society was greatly diminished by the loss to abuse and political expediency of the physical ‘commons.’ Or even that this magical place used to be at the center of a more pastoral and humane village life.
Imagine, if you will, a Mr. Om and his family, sitting beside the fire in a cave on a bitter winter evening. Suddenly the caribou skin bursts open and the Du police enter declaring that Om is under arrest for having violated the patent rights of Og, the recognized inventor of fire, as they throw a bucket of water on the flames.
Consider, please, that the chemical properties of aspirin were known to many ‘primitive’ peoples throughout history, but a German company developed a manufacturing technique and patented the palliative potion, reserving exclusive rights to it as property until an inconvenient war offered an opportunity to the politicians in this country to declare those rights to be void.
A great but profligate author dies. His house and silverware are taken to pay off a small portion of his debts. But the copyrights to his work are passed on to his children who live happily ever after on the proceeds–while the unpaid fishmonger and baker in town go bankrupt and their own children never see the inside of a college door.
Why would an American company spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours of human life on developing a new computer chip if they knew in advance that as soon as it was presented to the public, a Chinese company would take the design and replicate it for pennies.
Ask yourself, “Self, if I were dying of cancer and knew that the cure was sitting on a shelf in a lab but not available because legal costs were too great, would I resign myself to death or find a crowbar.”
For my own part, I would object to any law that forced me to pay for the use of the words I write. But words were indeed invented and every small combination of words I could ever conjure has likely been used before. I have learned to read from the works of others, and all of my own use of words has been shaped and guided by their genius. What do I owe those masters for their gift?
The crisis which currently shadows our society is an appropriate and useful definition of intellectual property. I would offer the further judgment that it might be the most important crisis we face, but I don’t expect a mob to form over the issue either to the left or the right. The greater portion of humanity will go about there lives, reading what they will, burning books in their fires, and giving themselves headaches with or without the permission of Bayer pharmaceuticals.
In the same year that the World Trade Center was destroyed by people who hate the Western concept of individual rights, Stephen Kinsella fired another broadside into this battle with his article Against Intellectual Property, delving into the fundamental theories behind our concepts concerning the ownership of ideas.
And now authors Michele Boldrin and David Levine have written the book, Against Intellectual Monopoly. I have not yet read this, but intend to as soon as possible. An excellent article by Jeffery A. Tucker, A Book That Changes Everything, about the practical issues discussed by Boldrin and Levine, has alerted me to what I have in store, and I can barely wait.
As I said, I am much in the middle of things, and cannot drop what I am doing just now, but I would welcome any thoughts on the issues involved, and I will offer my own critique in the near future. If you have time to comment here, I promise to steal only the good ideas for my own use. In the mean time, check out Mr. Tucker’s comments at mises.org.
A Book That Changes Everything by Jeffrey A. Tucker
Ludwig von Mises Institute
Against Intellectual Property, by N. Stephan Kinsella
JOURNAL OF LIBERTARIAN STUDIES, Spring, 2001
Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin and David Levine; Cambridge University Press.
The Tragedy of the Commons, by Garrett Hardin
Science, December 1968
You say that “The Tragedy of the Commons” was the second most thought provoking thing you had ever read at that point. What was the first? Rand?
My discovery of Ayn Rand was too much a part of my rejection of Catholicism and happened at a very young age. I was still too raw intellectually to understand the power of the ideas I was playing with. Interestingly (at least to me), the most provocative essay I had read at that time was by another libertarian by the name of George Smith. I no longer have a copy and I am unsure of the title– there are several George Smiths running about who say they are libertarians, but this was an early essay by the one who wrote Atheism; The Case Against God. It was the catalyst for a lot of bad work on my part. I must add that I have encountered much that has provoked me since and I usually find myself arguing most heatedly with the people whom I otherwise have the most in common. Odd, that.
A small book quote on this topic:
“”” Just to illustrate how great out ignorance of the optimum forms of delimitation of various rights remains – despite our confidence in the indispensability of the general institution of several property – a few remarks about one particuilar form of property may be made. […]
The difference between these and other kinds of property rights is this: while ownership of material goods guides the user of scarce means to their most important uses, in the case of immaterial goods such as literary productions and technological inventions the ability to produce them is also limited, yet once they have come into existence, they can be indefinitely multiplied and can be made scarce only by law in order to create an inducement to produce such ideas. Yet it is not obvious that such forced scarcity is the most effective way to stimulate the human creative process. I doubt whether there exists a single great work of literature which we would not possess had the author been unable to obtain an exclusive copyright for it; it seems to me that the case for copyright must rest almost entirely on the circumstance that such exceedingly useful works as encyclopaedias, dictionaries, textbooks and other works of reference could not be produced if, once they existed, they could freely be reproduced.
Similarly, recurrent re-examinations of the problem have not demonstrated that the obtainability of patents of invention actually enhances the flow of new technical knowledge rather than leading to wasteful concentration of research on problems whose solution in the near future can be foreseen and where, in consequence of the law, anyone who hits upon a solution a moment before the next gains the right to its exclusive use for a prolonged period.”””
The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, 1988 (p. 35) Friedrich von Hayek
You still didn’t answer the question- what was the first most thought provoking book you ever read?
You get at an important issue here- one on which I still don’t know exactly where I stand. But there does seem to be a lot of interesting material on the topic right now.
One source for more things you don’t have time to read or watch is Cato. Regarding that book you want to read– they hosted a talk by Michele Boldrin recently, and you can watch the video online:
Also, Cato Unbound recently had a series of essays on copyright:
They published a book in 2002 called Copy Fights, which is a collection of essays by authors who take different stances on this issue: