The Absurdity of Intellectual “Property”


This is a response to Kyle Scott’s essay, published in Liberty on August 16.

Kyle Scott’s case for copyright is interesting, and he should be commended for making it so clearly and intelligently. For him, as for many other libertarians, what people write is their own property, like any other kind of property, and they have a natural right to keep it. Government is merely the protector, not the source of their right. All this can be deduced from the natural rights theory most importantly exemplified by John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government.

Unfortunately, so concerned is Mr. Scott with his line of deductive reasoning, so clear, so forcible, so all-sufficient, that he never notices what a strange kind of property he’s talking about. Copyright is property that stops and starts whenever the government starts or stops it. A few decades ago, it lasted for 28 years, with renewal for another 28 years, if you mixed your labor with the thing a second time, by filling out a form asking for renewal. Now it continues for 70 years after your death or, in the case of “work for hire” — work performed, for instance, in the employ of the Disney Corporation, which hired you to mix your labor on its account — for a whopping 90 years after the original publication of whatever you wrote or otherwise created.

Copyright is an invention of government, and it has fluctuated at the arbitrary whim of government.

I have no doubt that many other alterations in the lifetime of this weirdly fluctuating property will occur, as congressmen receive yet more campaign funds from yet more wealthy holders of copyright. As things stand today, however, the heirs of a 20-year-old who writes something, anything, today, and survives to the age of 80, can manifest themselves in the year 2144, demanding that you get their permission to republish this something, anything, that was produced so long ago by so callow a youth. And if the heirs are not around, in the sense of being visible, you will have to find them, or show that you tried. Then, miracle of miracles, in the year 2145, the troublesome property will vanish. The copyright will have expired, a mere 70 years after its author’s expiration, and you will be free to publish it a thousand times over, if you want.

Now really, does this look like property? Do farms and houses vanish 70 years after the deaths of their creators, unless some government action resuscitates them?

Historically, copyright is an invention of government, and it has fluctuated at the arbitrary whim of government. Mr. Scott would doubtless argue that this has nothing to do with the basic issue, which is one of individual right, right eventually recognized and protected, however imperfectly, by government. He might carry his reasoning to the obvious, though absurd, extreme of insisting that anything I write and perhaps toss into the street should be guaranteed to me and my heirs forever — that the heirs of Sophocles and King Solomon, no doubt very numerous by now, should be tracked down and reimbursed for every republication of these authors’ works. Oh no, no need for consultation of Athenian or Israelite statutes of inheritance, which knew nothing of copyright. Principle alone will guide us.

But in truth, copyrighted “property” is no property at all. The assumption that it is property is fraught with as many evils as St. Paul attributed to the love of money.

Everyone has a right to own a house, to sell it, or to pass it to his heirs. But the house doesn’t vanish 70 years after his death, or whenever Congress passes another law. Nor, to get closer to the root of the problem, is the house an abstract title to the legal authority to reproduce a house, the ownership of which title can require expert knowledge to identify after a fairly short time. No, there is the house, at 400 S. Main Street, and there are the people inhabiting the house or paying rent on it to a readily identifiable owner. A house is completely different from the reproduction of a house — or, still more abstractly, the right to reproduce it. Your property right in your house is in no way diminished by my building a house that looks exactly like it. Furthermore, you can’t just build a house and move away and abandon it, and expect other people to run and find you and pay you money for the right to live in it — much less the right to build a house in Dubuque or Delphi that’s exactly like that house. No, other people are eventually going to mix their labor with your house — use it, maintain it, claim it for their own. Even in the most rights-conscious communities, if you keep leaving your grandfather’s gold watch on the sidewalk, someone else is going to pick it up, wind it, clean it, and appropriate it, and no jury will convict him for doing so. Nor should it, all cookie-cutter libertarian theory to the contrary.

The vast majority of copyrights are of no value at all, and honoring them constitutes an enormous tax on productive people.

Now, a copyright is not like a house, and it is not like a gold watch. It is nothing so real as those things. In Mr. Scott’s conception, and that of the United States government, it is an absolute right to keep other people from copying something, for the sole reason that you produced it. You could say the same thing about — pardon my taste for low imagery — your garbage, or the stuff you put in your toilet. Copyright, in this conception, is an absolute guarantee that no one can copy your words, even if you abandoned them, even if you sold somebody the paper they were written on and walked away and didn’t bother to leave your address. Even if you gave the paper away. Even if you left it lying in the gutter. Even if it stayed in the gutter, or in the moldering archives of a vanity press, for seventy years after your death.

Now, if I sold you a house by claiming that Frank Lloyd Wright had built it, and he didn’t build it, but I built it myself, you could sue me for fraud — but the Wright estate could not. I had every right to build and sell the house, even if it looked the same as one of Wright’s houses; I just didn’t have the right to claim that he built it and charge you more accordingly. But if I sold you a laundry list, claiming that Wright had written it, and he did write it, and you reproduced it, only without the permission of his estate, the estate should be able to sue you successfully, according to the argument of Mr. Scott and many other libertarians. What’s the difference? It isn’t a difference of natural right, that’s for sure; it’s a difference of political enactments that have become so naturalized in libertarian thought that rationalizations are found for them.

It never occurs to dogmatists of copyright that valuable works could be protected by invoking laws against fraud. More important, it never occurs to them that the vast majority of copyrights are of no value at all, and that honoring them constitutes an enormous tax on productive people. I know scholars who spend much of their lives trying to trace the copyright owners of works that are almost 100 years old, works that are of no value except to the hapless researchers and a handful of readers. They are paying a pointless tax to a ridiculous law, a law that Mr. Scott would presumably make still more ridiculous by extending it to eternity.

It isn’t a difference of natural right; it’s a difference of political enactments that have become so naturalized in libertarian thought that rationalizations are found for them.

If labor has anything to do with the creation of property — which it doesn’t, contrary to Mr. Scott’s faith in Lockean dogmas, according to which I can’t pick up a kitten in the street without asking who mixed his labor with the land that sustained the kitten’s progenitors, all the way back to Noah — there are a great many more researchers and readers who have a more substantial property right to the stuff they research and read than the authors who once excreted it. If you don’t believe that, try mixing your labor with John Locke’s prose.

Mr. Scott is patently an intelligent person, yet his claims for copyright are patently absurd. This is an observation that could be made in respect to many radical libertarian arguments, particularly those whose results turn out to be, rather ironically, highly conservative. By Scott’s logic, high schools shouldn’t just be teaching Shakespeare; they should be supporting an eternal Shakespeare Trust, providing dividends for his millions of heirs, any one of whom could veto republication of his works, as a matter of right.

This prompts the question: under what circumstances are intelligent persons most likely to make absurd statements, without realizing their absurdity? Answer: When they are in love. And so it is: Mr. Scott — again, like too many other libertarians — is in love with an ideology and cannot see the absurdity to which his supposedly radical position leads him: the absurdity of endorsing, on the ground of individual rights, a massive governmental creation and subsidization of crony “property.”

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