IP: Sorry, Wendy and Lew

"Sorry, Wendy and Lew" (source)
Column by John deLaubenfels, posted on January 19, 2010
Article mirrored with permission of John deLaubenfels


Preface

Because I send occasional feedback to libertarian-leaning websites, I tend to get added to their lists and solicited for donations. Two such sites are WendyMcElroy.com and LewRockwell.com. To each, when I'm asked to part with hard-earned cash, I write back saying that I cannot in good conscience donate to them because of their opposition to all forms of protection for Intellectual Property (IP). I explain that I support the abolition of patents, which protect ideas that could reasonably be expected to be derived independently by others, but not the abolition of copyrights, which protect completed works for which the chances of accidental duplication by another are astronomically small (I go into much more detail here, here, and here).

In my experience, I'm almost sure to get a response such as, "I'm not changing my position, but it's unreasonable of you to withhold money over one disagreement. Copyright is a small issue compared to others on which we're in accord." Sorry, Wendy and Lew, but I must disagree.

A World of no IP

Imagine a world structured as the anti-IP zealots would have it. I have a photo-enhancing program that I offer for sale over the Internet. It has a modest layer of security, requiring that a user enter her name and a code that she gets from me when she purchases a license. If a purchaser is so inclined, he/she can, without my knowledge, pass the license information to friends, allowing each of them to enable the program using the same information, and in practice there's nothing I can do about it. This rankles me, but the reality is that to achieve more bullet-proof protection is not practical. At least in THEORY, however, the law protects me against such duplication. More importantly, the law protects me from wholesale ripoffs from someone who hacks the security and sells copies by the fistful, pocketing every penny himself.

If, however, copyright were abolished, or made "contractual", this is what life would be like: If someone purchased my program, which involves agreeing not to hack its security, and that person did hack the security, I could sue him. But if someone did NOT purchase my program, but got ahold of a copy and hacked its security, then sold copies of the hacked program, that would be fine, even if I knew who that person was and he was doing it right under my nose! In other words, the outright thief would have more "legal rights" than someone who paid for a copy.

I don't understand how anyone can call that justice, or why anyone would want to live in such a society.

Tactics of Abolish IP

Misleading Examples

The arguments for abolishing copyright that I have seen are laughable. One common tactic, favored by Boldrin and Levine, is to trot out examples of works that have brought their authors significant remuneration in spite of a lack of copyright protection. Someone needs to tell these people that it's a logical fallacy to claim, "A, B, and C got by without protection X; therefore nobody needs it." Success is seen and failure is unseen, especially by those who are determined not to acknowledge it.

Blame the Victim

Another tactic is to blame the victim. Are record companies losing millions to file sharing? It's their own fault for not changing their business models, claim the anti-IP'ers. From a practical standpoint, this statement has genuine merit, but from a moral standpoint, it is worth exactly nothing.

Unreasonable Requests

Yet another tactic is to say, "If you don't want everybody to take a free copy of what you've created, keep it to yourself." What a poor world we'd live in if authors abided by that philosophy!

Copies and Markets

Let's dispose of the notion, popular with Stephan Kinsella and his hangers-on, that goes like this: Copies of an electronic work are almost effortless to make; therefore they're worth nothing, and nobody need feel bad for taking one and flipping off the original author. What nonsense! The value that a completed work brings to the world can be calculated as the sum of what everyone would be willing to pay, if there were no other way to acquire access. Of course, no author can seriously hope to be compensated by that full amount, since it's impossible to guess how much each individual would bid. But I think it is fair to say that the author deserves to receive the price he sets from those who find the exchange worthwhile. Anyone willing to pay more gets a bargain, and anyone not willing to pay the asking price quite properly does without.

Note that "does without" does not mean the person in question has no options! He may perceive and fill a need by writing a competing program (or other creative work) that sells for less. Or he may sit back and wait for someone else to fill the gap. The world is richer for the competition stimulated by the enforcement of copyrights. When you're willing to pay for what you get, it's wonderful how many options become available.

Copyright & Patent Equivocation

In this respect, copyrights have the opposite effect of patents, which explicitly inhibit competition. Clearly, patents and copyrights are very different creatures, worthy of separate consideration. Yet, in my experience, anti-IP'ers almost invariably lump them together, for reasons I will leave it to them to explain.

Unjust Enforcement

Am I calling for a surveillance society in which every file sharer is hauled into court or threatened by lawyers? No. It is quite true, as the anti-IP'ers claim, that a little illegal copying can be a boon to the originator's sales by spreading the word about his product. And disproportionate responses, such as the ones famously perpetrated by record companies, do an amazing job of pissing off would-be customers with heavy-handed tactics that rightfully earn scorn (and of course, tend to cast a bad light upon the entire copyright-defending movement). It does not follow, however, that copyright ought to be abolished, only that its protection should be applied judiciously.

Also, nothing I've said is meant to disparage those who choose to make their creations available to the world for free. I salute those generous souls! But their existence does not negate the right of a creator to say, I choose to set a price for partaking of my creation.

What Abolish-IP Really Means

To advocate a world without copyright is to advocate taking bread off my table, bread I have honestly earned, so that thieves can steal my program or anything else that has been created by another, and profit from selling it with zero creative effort on their part. It is a world which rewards parasites and fleeces the productive.

I can truly say that I'd as soon live under all the tyranny and injustice that our corrupt society endures today, as under the Fantasy Utopia of the anti-IP'ers. Accordingly, I will donate not a single cent to such sites, and will give instead to those which advocate policies that actually promote a just society, or which, like strike-the-root.com, actively promote debate. I would encourage others to consider doing the same.

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