Intellectual property, the concept that the products of one’s mind are akin to owning a car, or a TV, has been defended as an essential part of the free market.
Some claim that entrepreneurs won’t invent without it, or that, as the United States Department of Justice explains, “The first step in encouraging innovation is to establish predictable, enforceable intellectual property rights.”
A similar justification was expressed by James Madison, which led to the clause in the US Constitution granting congress “[the] power to […] promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
But it isn’t just the government that boasts the necessity; founder of objectivism, Ayn Rand, was also a proponent of intellectual property laws. Though the philosopher only supported the patenting of inventions (discoveries were excluded because Rand claimed the discoverer did not create it), she still felt that “By forbidding an unauthorized reproduction of the object, the law declares, in effect, that the physical labor of copying is not the source of the object’s value, that that value is created by the originator of the idea and may not be used without his consent; thus the law establishes the property right of a mind to that which it has brought into existence” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal 130).
It is these arguments that are most common for advocates of patents and copyrights, which is surprising since libertarians seem to constantly be arguing with progressives and the common leftist on why the market system we have today is not capitalism, but corporatism. Despite this, many libertarians I have spoken to ardently defend the validity of intellectual property as an extension of property rights.
Intellectual property is another of the many ways today’s corporations use law to ensure that competition will be extinguished and that they can continue remaining on top.
Apple, for example, has the ability to allow their design teams to cut themselves completely off from the rest of the company and “create their own reporting structures and report directly to the executive team. This leaves them free to focus on design rather than day-to-day minutiae.” This allows for quicker innovation, and the ability to put in their application for an artificial monopoly first.
Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, depend on second jobs to fund their projects, allowing less freedom to create their product in the timeliest manner. By the time the entrepreneur has finished his product, an established company could have already patented or trademarked a similar idea, keeping out any potential of the entrepreneur’s ideas.
Were there no intellectual property laws, the entrepreneur could still release their product and compete with the large corporations, but instead, they get to hoard their ideas and hamper, instead of promoting, innovation.
This is nothing new to today, as similar situations were happening during the industrial revolution with steam-engines.
James Watts, the owner of the steam-engine patent, fought for 15 years to maintain his ownership of the design and when it expired, the technology boomed as others were finally able to make their own versions and compete (Jeffery Tucker, It’s A Jetson’s World, 182).
So, with the history that IP has, it’s shocking that many libertarians support its use and defend it as an extension of property rights. The reality is the opposite, and these laws are another tool that is used by corporations to keep out competitors and use government to alter the free market.
Imagine all the years of progress that have been lost because of government enforced monopolies. Imagine all the entrepreneurs that never saw their ideas come to light because they had their ankles tied to cinder-blocks while the corporations had bikes in the race for innovation. Add all of this and where would the world be now? Who would be our masterminds of technology today?
Unfortunately, we’ll never know and unless there is a massive push by creative individuals to repeal IP laws, the world will continue to have our technological and scientific progress decelerated and only those who have the highest wealth will be able to compete.