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An Objectivist Recants on IP

On the Mises blog, I noticed one of the frequent commentators on IP-related blog threads, one Bala, used to defend the IP position but of late had been taking an anti-IP position. We discussed this privately and I asked him to give me a short write-up about his thought process as he changed his mind on this issue. I find such "conversion" stories interesting, and have seen it in others as well--myself, Jeff Tucker, etc. He sent it to me; I append it below.

Pro-IP to Anti-IP: The Transformation of an Objectivist

by S Balasubramanian

[The author resides in Chennai, India, and has a B Tech (Aerospace Engineering)--Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras ('94), PGDM (equivalent of an MBA)--Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad ('98). He is a businessman, running a test prep company that trains students for competitive examinations for admissions to institutions of higher education, especially for those aspiring to get into the top B-Schools in India. He also recently started a pre-school which he hopes to build into a full-fledged school.]

It was in August of 2009 that I stumbled, or rather fumbled, my way into mises.org. I was guided to LvMI by none other than the Ayn Rand Institute, which referred LvMI as the place to go to if I wanted to get any understanding at all of economics, especially capitalism. As a long-time fan of Ayn Rand, having read a lot of her fiction as well as non-fiction and actually applying the basic principles of Objectivism in my daily life, I decided to take the tip seriously.

Pretty much to my shock, almost the first thing I came across was a little Rand-bashing and, worse, a denunciation of an idea Rand had explained as being the cornerstone of property rights - that of Intellectual Property.

The ideas I came in with

My ideas on intellectual property were formed almost completely based on Rand's arguments justifying the idea. It all begins with the fundamental premises that:

  1. Ideas are legitimate property;
  2. Ideas owe their existence to the person who originated or "created them" and hence morally "belong" to the creator.
    1. It is important for a reader to understand that Objectivists use the term "morally" differently. Morality, to an Objectivist, is a code of values that guides man's actions in the face of choices. It is rationally derived starting with recognition of the Objective reality that we are a part of. It is not a set of edicts or diktats from a higher authority.
    2. Those who copy ideas deprive the creators of the value that should rightfully accrue to them and are hence guilty of stealing (the emphasis is on "rightfully" as it flows from point 2 above).
    3. It is the fundamental responsibility of government to protect individual rights, property rights being the most important of man's rights.
    4. A system of patent & copyrights is a way by which creators register their claim to creating ideas, a means by which they inform all interested parties as to whose property an idea is
    5. Infringement of patents and copyrights is a violation of property rights and government enforcement of patent & copyright laws is legitimate protection of property rights.
Questions that troubled me

In the course of some heated discussions, a few interesting questions came up for which I had to reach deep inside to find the answers

  1. How do you reconcile the facts that recognising and enforcing IP essentially gives some people a right to the physical property of others?
  2. How can ideas and patterns be property?
  3. How do you propose to enforce IP except through the State machinery? Considering that the State has never demonstrated any tendency other than for evil, how is this consistent with the advancement of Liberty?
What made me realise the error in my (and the "orthodox" Objectivist) position on IP

To cut a long thing short, the moment I realised that there is a conflict between rights to intellectual property and rights to physical property, I also realised that something is wrong about the whole thing. Such a contradiction usually means that something is wrong with the premises of the person facing the contradiction - me.

Restricting a person from giving physical shape to an idea he has in his mind is clearly a violation of his Liberty and Property Rights. However, this is precisely what implementation of IP means. IP proponents typically tent to retort saying that what I am calling "violation of Liberty and Property Rights" is actually implementation of the property rights of the owner of the idea/pattern that is the subject of the IP.

If it is true that in the name of protecting Intellectual Property Rights, one is actually violating the Liberty of some individuals, in effect one is also saying that the holders of Intellectual Property have an undefined lien on the Liberty of the individuals of the other part. Translated, this gives some individuals the right to enslave others by virtue of being holders of Intellectual Property rights. This made the notion all the more bizarre to me. It was in direct contradiction of the most basic principles of Objectivism that no man may claim the right to initiate force against another.

This led me to realise that there is a fundamental problem in the way different people were defining the concept "property". At least, the way Objectivists seem to be defining "property", they are setting themselves up for a conflict between the right to physical property and the right to Liberty on one side and the right to Intellectual Property on the other.

The answer, to me, was to obtain clarity on the relationship between the Right to Liberty and the Right to Property. The question I was trying to answer was "Which of the 2 rights is more fundamental to human nature?". If Liberty is more fundamental to human nature, it would be futile to define Property independent of Liberty because such a definition is bound to lead to a contradiction.

Liberty or Property - Which is more fundamental?

To me, the answer was obvious - Liberty. The Right to Liberty is a logical corollary of the Right to Life and is in fact a restatement of the latter focusing on a specific part of it. The Right to Liberty, as per Objectivism, is nothing more than the freedom to act as per the judgement of one's rational mind. Action being essential to life and in fact being an integral and inviolable part of the definition of the concept "Life" (a sequence of self-generated self-sustaining actions), violation of the Right to Liberty is a violation of the Right to Life itself.

Once again taking from Rand herself, value is that which you act to gain or keep. Thus, gaining or keeping value is impossible unless one is free to act. Thus, it is futile to place "property", which is nothing more than the value one acts to gain or keep with the aim of sustaining one's life, above that which is a prerequisite to the process of gaining or keeping value, i.e., action. Translating this into a simple inequality,

Right to Life > Right to Liberty > Right to Property

Therefore, the choice was clear - to define the concept "property" in terms of the more fundamental concept "liberty". The outcome is bound to be a non-contradictory system of Property Rights where it is possible for Liberty and Property Rights to coexist.

Defining the concept "Property"

(The most fundamental premise I used in this discussion is that initiating force against another is a violation of his Right to Liberty. As per my limited understanding of Objectivism, this is how Ayn Rand defined Liberty.)

Objects exist in 3 states - existent, possession and property. An apple exists. When I hold the apple in my hands, it is in my possession. When my possession is morally justified, i.e., when the apple "ought" to be in my possession, it is deemed my "property".

Clearly, not every "possession" is "property". That raises the question how and when a "possession" becomes "property". The answer to the question is to be found by a study of the morality of the actions that went into gaining and keeping "possession". If you obtain possession the "right" way, it is morally yours, i.e., you are better off with it than without. On the other hand, if you did something "wrong" in the process of gaining possession, it is not morally yours, i.e., you are better off without it than with it. Objectivists in particular should have no difficulty evaluating issues from a moral perspective and to talk of issues like "right" and "wrong" because they ought to be used to deriving these logically from reality, which they consider absolute.

From an Objectivist perspective, there is only 1 "wrong" that a man can commit in the process of gaining possession of an existent - that is to initiate force against other men in the process. Thus, possessions to gain which man has to necessarily initiate force against others will not get moral sanction. Such possessions cannot be considered property.

Equally fundamental to the concept "property" is the right to exclude others from total or partial enjoyment of the value that the property holds. Exclusion of others requires specific actions from the person in possession of an object. The nature of the actions one needs to undertake in order to exclude others from one's possessions also influences the moral status of the possession in question. If excluding others requires retaliatory force only, such exclusion would be a morally sound action. If, on the other hand, exclusion itself involves initiation of force, it would naturally be immoral and the author cannot exclude and be right at the same time. Such possessions that create contradictions by their very nature cannot and should not be deemed property.

Applying this idea to the 2 broad categories of property - physical and intellectual, physical possessions clearly justify the use of the term "property" to denote their ownership. The taking possession of or the exclusion of others from physical objects does not necessarily involve initiation of force. On the other hand, the taking away of a physical good without the consent of the legitimate owner always involves the initiation of force. Thus, the statement "no man shall take away the physical property of another man without his consent" is equivalent to saying that "one man may not initiate force against another". In this sense, it is no different from the basic Objectivist principle of non-initiation of force.

Ideas and patterns, on the other hand, presented a problem when I tried to treat them as "property". While there is no denying the value of ideas in human advancement, exclusion of other individuals from an idea or pattern necessarily involves the initiation of force. For instance, how else is A to prevent B from incorporating A's idea in his B's product other than to force himself upon B's property and coerce B to prevent him from doing so, thus violating B's Liberty? In effect, recognising ideas and patterns as property is tantamount to saying that A has a moral right to initiate force against B simply because he has coined an idea. Thus, as an Objectivist, classifying ideas and patterns as "property" takes me into dangerous territory where I am ready to label the initiation of force as legitimate.

Even worse than the above is to codify IP into law and giving the State and its machinery additional legitimacy engage in rampant violation of Liberty. As an Objectivist, I hate the State as much as anyone else can. To see the State as an ally just because it is the only agency capable of enforcing Intellectual Property Rights is downright immoral. I realised that once there, there was no turning back. I become as evil as the very collectivists and statists that I am trying to condemn and fight against.

I am now left with a very moral choice - do I or do I not recognise ideas and patterns as "property". If I should remain true to my Objectivist roots (which I value for good reason), my only option is to apologise to Rand for disagreeing with her strongly and telling her that she was wrong on this one and that I am not ready to apply the label "property" to ideas and patterns.

(While in the above analysis, I might appear to be going in circles around essentially 1 idea, the non-initiation of force, given that that principle is the most important Objectivist social principle, the one that defines how an individual ought to deal with the society he lives in, I do not think I am guilty of circular reasoning. Rather, I am making my axioms clear and validating all my conclusions against my axioms.)

Conclusions

An Objectivist cannot and should not support the notion of Intellectual Property because it violates fundamental Objectivist principles. Rejecting the validity of "Intellectual Property" does not mean that one is rejecting Objectivism. Anyone who claims otherwise needs to be reminded of Ayn Rand's warnings against package deals. He who wishes to say "Rand said otherwise" needs to be reminded of Rand's other very important point - that no human may consider himself or any other human being to be infallible, not even Ayn Rand herself.

[Mises crosspost; SK crosspost]


Comments

The right to property derives from privacy. Privacy delimits liberty.

Ideas do belong to their creator, as their private/exclusive property - whilst they remain private/exclusive to them. Once you divulge an idea you've created it is obviously no longer exclusive to you. It is owned by all those who possess it.

It's a false dichotomy to believe that either ideas can be owned or they can't. Of course they can be owned, but you can't own that which you've given to another.

The only thing that conflicts with libertarianism are the monopolies of copyright and patent, granted in the 18th century. These are the only things that impinge upon any individual's liberty. Privacy does not impinge, because it is a natural right, a natural boundary. Intellectual property without the privilege of monopoly is as natural as material property.

I am not an objectivist, however I am lenient towards several of their (your views).

The use of the word "property" upon ideas is a rather ridiculous one. It never was and never will be a matter of property. "Intellectual property" is better named "Intellectual monopoly". It was once though that in order to encourage the act of learning, it was best to grant a temporary monopoly on the economic management of such ideas. This theory has never ever been tested or measured.

What seems to be quintessential to an objectivist is the right to liberty and the right to privacy.

I can call my own being and my own body for my own property. I can call the brain pattern of my own brain for my own property. I have a joke in my head. I tell that joke to someone else. Now that joke is in their brain, ie it is now THEIR property as well. We have the same joke in our heads.

Now I tell my friend "you cannot tell anyone else this joke, or I will sue you. The law gives me that right." Not only is it using force and controlling another human being, but in order to ensure that you dont tell that joke to anyone else, The state needs to see everything you do, listen to every conversation and read every letter. If not, the state cannot enforce my rights...A part of your brain and your person is my property!

What is happening now, is that the record industry is suing everyone and everything in order to enforce their rights. They have found it impractical to sue everyone that copies, so now theyre suing the ISP's instead for accessory. In other words, its so difficult to enforce the speed limits, that theyre suing the roadbuilder instead forcing them to build worse roads.

The use of force is rampant, and it is impeding on our lives. If someone else, in China, comes up with the same joke as I did - I can rightfully sue them for copyright infringement if they tell it to anyone.

IP is a government granted and government enforced monopoly, not property. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government-granted_monopoly

There is a spirited discussion of the topic at Mises Economics Blog an Objectivist Recants on IP - Comments

Based on my understanding of "Objectivism" it is is a morally bankrupt philosophy. It seems to me that under "Objectivism" the "reality" (perspective) of the individual is based on the self. In my comments I wrote that: ""Objectivism" essentially allows anyone to feel justified in their actions even if means collateral damage to society. To reword this a bit: "I am free to cheat you. If I succeed, it is your fault. Tough luck." Needless to say,this didn't go over to well, but I still believe it to be fundamentally true. Balasubramanian wrote "Morality, to an Objectivist, is a code of values that guides man's actions in the face of choices. It is rationally derived starting with recognition of the Objective reality that we are a part of. It is not a set of edicts or diktats from a higher authority."

"Based on my understanding of "Objectivism" it is is a morally bankrupt philosophy."

I agree. It's a sad, cold existence that serves to divide society and ultimately denies the upward mobility (and social contribution) of those born into poverty.

Hey, I might be a little less wordy here but, the reason ideas have no business in the realm of "property" is that nearly all ideas are derivatives of other ideas. Just look the patents filed that start with "A method or process" relating to just about every natural or normal process that humans do, with the phrase "on a computer" appended to the end. Usually they try to obfuscate the description with buzz words that describe something thats new. Usually it's just the buzz word thats new... "cloud computing" for example, tens of thousands of patents have been filed for software surrounding this phrase. That's great, except that grid computing pre-dates the internet. The only reason they race to the patent office, is because they know there are tens of thousands of chaps around the globe thinking of the same thing. It contributes nothing to innovation and serves to infringe on one's right to stand on the shoulders of giants. Ironically thats how this stop wall was erected in the first place.

intellectual property = intellectual oppression.

Crosbie:

"The right to property derives from privacy."

This is nonsense.

"Privacy delimits liberty."

this is meaningless babble.

"Ideas do belong to their creator, as their private/exclusive property - whilst they remain private/exclusive to them. Once you divulge an idea you've created it is obviously no longer exclusive to you. It is owned by all those who possess it.

"It's a false dichotomy to believe that either ideas can be owned or they can't. Of course they can be owned, but you can't own that which you've given to another."

Yet more incoherence. Ideas are not owned. Your body is owned--you control, and have a right to control, your body, and other property. You are free to use your right to control your body to choose not to reveal information to others. You are free to not to labor for others either. You are free not to go to college. But that doesn't mean you own "not going to college". That would be an action you take (or do not take). All human action employs causally efficacious means, including one's body, to achieve ends. If you choose to keep information private, by using your body in such and such a way, you are using property you own (body, etc.) to achieve your end (keep information secret). this does not mean you own the information. Ownership means the right to control. You have the right to control your body, and this gives you practical power to choose not to reveal information (or: to abstain from working, to go for a jog, to leave the television on, etc.). Your ability to keep private information private is a consequence of your right to own your boyd, and to count it as a separate, independent right is a confusion and double counting. Likewise, as Rothbard pointed out, there is no independent right to free speech or to freedom of the press; there are only rights to property (to scarce resources). The right to free speech is simply a consequence of propert rights--the fact that you have a right to do anything you want with or on your property and body, so long as it is not aggression (and word are generally not aggression).

Stephan, free speech does not arise out of any 'right to property'. Free speech is a natural power of the individual as much as is their freedom of movement. Liberty is the limit of this natural freedom by everyone's natural rights (liberty, truth, privacy, life).

Individuals are the basis of rights, not their material or intellectual property. Human beings come first. Only their natural power to protect their privacy then creates the notion of property (objects they retain exclusive control over by dint of private possession).

I own the ideas in my mind, and there's no power on earth available to you to extract them without my consent. I have a natural monopoly to them.

When in my private domain I set my ideas down on paper or in a device they become my natural intellectual property and my natural right to privacy prohibits burglary on your part to obtain or copy them. I thus still have a natural monopoly to them.

If I give or sell you my intellectual property, it is then your IP, and you are then at liberty to do what you will with it. I no longer have a natural monopoly to it, however we now share a natural duopoly. Each person either of us communicates our IP to, and they in turn, extends this duopoly, from an initially restricted circulation into general public availability.

Unfortunately the privileges of copyright and patent interfere with this natural distribution by attempting to prevent the natural dilution of the monopoly, by legislating that the creator or registrant retains a non-diluting monopoly (and a transferable one too). As we now recognise, this is a most Canutish folly, and one that creates an inherent injustice, a violation of everyone's liberty, and in the process of policing and enforcement, a violation of privacy.

Privacy naturally delimits liberty. Privilege unnaturally violates it.

Crosbie, you speak in bizarre, mystical-sounding language. I suspect this arises from your confusion, or it is an attempt to dress up very mundane insights (which leads to confusion). Yes, yes, we all know that if you own your body this gives you the ability to choose to keep information quiet. Yes, yes, it's quite obvious that owning property lets you speak or print books on or using it. Yawn. So, the property right is in the body, or other property. And these property rights are useful. Sure. I think this is all you are saying, in your California, confused, non-rigorous way. So it's nothing new or profound, and does not call for you to run around saying you oppose artificial monopoly IP but support "natural IP"--all you mean is you, like us, support property rights--in part because this is useful to the holder. Anything else?


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