Intellectual Property: Piracy, Competition, and Free Markets

The Claim

The abolish intellectual property crowd occasionally attempts to claim:

  • Violations of intellectual property are little more than engaging in normal acts of free market economic competition.
  • Intellectual property is anti-competition, and in direct opposition to free market principles.

This argument takes advantage of equivocation, continuum fallacy, and weak semantics.


Lets briefly acknowledge1 that portions of modern state-enforced intellectual property mandates are used as a means2 to promote and enforce anti-competitive practices. This is however only "damning" of the statist model, or portions of the statist model as it presently exists3, but has limited implications towards other possible intangible ownership models.

Non State Intangible Ownership

Given the intent to use this argument as a means of damning all intangible ownership (state, or otherwise), let us restructure the previous assertions as questions directed at other possible norms regarding intangible ownership:

  • "Are violations of (all) intangible ownership norms equivalent to the actions and values of free market competition."
  • "Are (all) intangible ownership norms anti-competitive and in direct opposition to free market values."

The author also wishes to note that the pursuit of competition is a valuable consideration in the development and analysis of balanced ownership norms for intangibles that reflect and promote libertarian and free-market values.

Virtues of the Free Market

According to Rothbard:

  • The free market is the voluntary exchange of two economic goods, in which both parties expect to gain from that transaction.4
  • A market is free if choices at each step are made freely and voluntarily.5
  • The key to the existence and flourishing of the free market is a society in which the rights and titles of private property are respected, defended, and kept secure.6
  • The free market is in opposition to coercion, theft, and parasitism.7

The author also notes:

  • Free Market Entry: The ability to freely enter a market, and produce a competing product or service without restriction.

Comparison of Piracy and Free Market

In order to avoid distraction, let us examine a specific scenario:

Scenario Person-A produces unique software-X, which he then digital copies with a use-license attached for a fee. Person-B acquires software-X (through purchase or piracy), and then proceeds to distribute and sell software-Xb at a lower price (to Person-C). Software-Xb is an identical (or near identical) digital copy produced by copying the bits of software-X.
Norm Given the previous scenario and no extraordinary circumstances, it is considered a violation if intangible property norms for person-B to redistribute software-Xb without person-A's consent. Person-B is, however, free to produce, sell, and distribute a competing software-Y8 using his own resources9.

  • Exchange of Economic Goods If the exchange between Person-B and Person-C is a market transaction, then software-Xb (and software-X) must be considered an economic good. If software-Xb is not an economic good, then Person-B and Person-C are engaging in a transaction, but not a market transaction10.
  • Choices at Each Step Made Freely: Given the recognition of software as an economic good, the means by which Person-B acquires software-X cannot be said to be the result of a free choice by person-A. It is impossible for Person-B to redistribute software-X without somehow violating the choice of person-A to not transact distribution rights.
    • (a) Purchase: Person-A only voluntarily agrees to exchange digital copies of softare-X with purchasers (i.e. person-B) who agree to refrain from distributing software-X and derivatives of that. For transaction A-B11 to be voluntary, person-B must have agreed to refrain from distribution. Absent that agreement, Person-A would have never voluntarily engaged in transaction A-B. Thefore given Person-B's redistribution, this transaction is fraudulent and involuntary.
    • (b) Piracy: Given Person-B gains software-X through piracy, this implies a person-P acquired the software through purchase12. Per the previous bullet-point, transaction A-P is fraudulent and involuntary. While one may argue transaction P-B and B-C are voluntary, one cannot say transactions at all step were made freely13.
  • Private Property Given market transactions are part of this "free market is a society in which the rights and titles of private property are respected, defended, and kept secure", Person-B's actions in no way reflect norms that respect titles of private property.
  • Parasitism The relationship between Person-B and Person-A is highly parasitic, whereas Person-B produces little value and gains almost entirely at the expense of Person-A.

Per author notes:

  • Person-A's exclusive ownership of distribution rights of software-X in no way inhibits Person-B from independently producing competing software-Y by means of free market activites.

Core Questions Revisited

Reviewing our earlier core questions:

  • "Are violations of intangible ownership norms equivalent to the actions and values of free market competition."

Violations of balanced intangible ownership norms trend towards a heavily contrast to the values and pursuits of free markets, and often rely on involuntary exchanges and parasitism.

  • "Are intangible ownership norms anti-competitive and in direct opposition to free market values."

Given the example norms proposed, and libertarian-styled intangible property norms, the claim that intangible property norms are anti-competitive and anti-free market are weak in comparison to claims that the abolishment of intangible property norms enables parasitism and undermines free market values.


The above article is only intended to counter and demonstrate weaknesses of specific claims used to advocate for the abolishment of IP. Broadly speaking, the author sees this general topic as a distraction, which is not productive in the pursuit of libertarian values or norms.

The author also does not seek to make any objective ethics claims (see: "Objective Statements") and finds this general topic distracting in the pursuit of constructive balanced intangible ownership norms. The only constructive or assertive aspect of this article is the recognition that respect for competition is valuable in the pursuit of developing balanced intangible ownership norms.

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