Fri, Aug 7 2009 10:55 AM Solredime

Non-scarcity of intellectual property

Scarcity can be defined as the ownership of something tangible which necessarily excludes others from using it. Thus, if I own a fork, I exclude others from using it, unless I either give it away or temporarily transfer availability of it to someone else, which in turn means I cannot at that point in time use it. Should someone steal it from me, the act of theft can be characterised by two features. First, the transfer of property is involuntary on the part of the original owner, and does not involve mutual consent. Second, the transfer of ownership excludes the previous owner from using the property – that is to say, if someone steals my fork, I can no longer use it.

Intellectual property, on the other hand, is not a scarce resource. If I see you making a sandwich and decide to make one myself using my own bread and cheese, I am not taking away your idea from you – you still have possession of your idea. When I make a sandwich based on your idea, you do not lose your own ability to make a sandwich. Ideas themselves are therefore not in principle scarce economic goods. Having said that, you could certainly create artificial scarcity by hiding your idea of making a sandwich from me, and thus try to imbue your idea with added value due to its newly acquired scarcity. Such means of protecting ones' ideas are in my opinion perfectly valid.

If however you were to try to stop me from making my own sandwich once I had already acquired the idea, you would be violating my very real physical property rights. You would in fact be restricting the ways in which I can use my physical property (bread and cheese), and in so doing would also be laying claim to ideas inside my mind, violating my self-ownership too. This contradiction between self ownership and physical property rights on the one hand and intellectual property rights on the other cannot logically be valid, since intellectual property rights can only come about as a consequence of self-ownership and physical property rights. You must first own yourself, in order to own your ideas. Of course, there is nothing stopping you from getting me to voluntarily sign a contract agreeing to not disclose your idea to others, or to use it in limited ways, but such a contract must be explicit, and signed by both parties.

If one were to assert that the copying of another's idea, and its subsequent mass production is damaging the owner of the original idea, then using that same logic, if two people were to try to get a job where only one placement exists, the person who gets the job should be held liable for hurting the other person. But this reductio ad absurdum works precisely because there is a critical misconception here. In the case of a job, what is lost is not owned. In other words, the person who fails to pass an interview for a job does not lose the job itself, but merely the opportunity of obtaining this job. Since opportunities are not one's property, indeed – opportunities are usually created by others for us to take advantage of, then the loss of an opportunity as a result of someone else does not constitute a crime. To try to instate a system as to the contrary would require violation of the rights of the employers and other creators of opportunity. Oh wait...

In any case, it is scarcity that makes property rights both necessary for a well-functioning society that wishes to avoid the perennial tragedy of the commons problem, and it is scarcity that provides the ethical justification for property rights and against theft, since theft of scarce resources actually does hurt the original owner – by excluding them from their possessions.

Likewise then, we can apply this to piracy. Let us take, for example, movie piracy. If I were to download a movie from the internet (assuming I did not explicitly and voluntarily sign a contract with the producer restricting my use of the product), and then sell DVDs of this movie to other people at a lower price than the original DVD producer was selling them at – this does not represent theft. The loss of sales that the original producer experiences is not a loss of property, and so cannot possibly constitute theft. This is because all sales are opportunities – they may or may not occur, and when I undercut the original DVD producer therefore taking customers away from them, this is merely a manifestation of market mechanics in which they fail to price their goods adequately (usually due to monopoly power) or fail to protect their ideas through non-coercive means, and therefore lose the opportunity to sell their goods to some people. Thus, intellectual property can only be safeguarded through secrecy or explicit contracts with the users of said property, if it is to remain consistent with the idea of self-ownership.

It is also worth addressing the argument that actually, ideas are scarce. It is claimed that ideas have scarcity because it is difficult and costly to obtain certain knowledge, skills, experience, etc. Take the example of teaching. To acquire an education implies a certain expense, regardless of who pays for it. Yet this is primarily because teachers are often scarce – especially good teachers, and both teachers and the act of teaching constitute a physical good or action in the real world. Moreover, it is the teachers' constraint of time, and the limited amount of teachers, that does not enable them to spread their ideas more freely. It is thus the natural limitations of the physical world that cause the transmission of ideas to be scarce – not the ideas themselves.



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# re: Non-scarcity of intellectual property

Friday, August 7, 2009 1:04 PM by xntr42

Thanks for checking in. Glad you enjoyed my scribblings. I'm definately going to keep an eye on your essays here...good food for thought.


Doc Snoops

# re: Non-scarcity of intellectual property

Friday, August 7, 2009 3:16 PM by xntr42

# re: Non-scarcity of intellectual property

Saturday, February 18, 2012 1:50 AM by FlyingAxe

Let me ask you a question. If I copied what you wrote above and posted it on my blog, without citing you as the text's author, you would not argue that I stole anything from you.

But would you argue that what I did was unfair? If so, why?

If you worked as a journalist or a writer or a scientist, and you were preparing a work of some sort, or you made a discovery -- would you not be interested in protecting your work before it got published? (I am not talking about the law here. I am talking about your own efforts to protect something.)

Or, better yet, if you found a good investment opportunity and wrote it down on a piece of paper (or you found a good job opening) -- would you be interested in protecting this information from your "rivals" (business or otherwise) until you made use of it? (Again, I am not talking about law, property rights, stealing, etc. I am just saying that if you had "invest in X" written on a piece of paper, would you guard it from others' eyes until you yourself made the investment?)

If you would -- what is it that you would be guarding? A piece of paper? But I am not trying to steal it. I am just trying to look at what's written on it.

By your guarding of information, would you not agree that you're acknowledging its existence and importance for you to guard?