Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 582, August 8, 2010

"I do not regard a lock on my door
as a limit to anybody's freedom."

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Let's Play Nice
by Cathy L.Z. Smith

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Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

I've been puzzling for some weeks now over the purpose of the vehement attacks on the notion of intellectual property rights (IPR) being mounted by some who call themselves Austrian economists. My confusion comes, in part, from watching those around me (three of them at this point) struggle for days, weeks, months, and even years laboring to produce an original work of fiction.

The most baffling aspect of this attack is that it's led by a small coterie of "intellectuals"—people one might reasonably assume had some respect for the functioning of a mind—followed by an army of little entitlement babies, children of the Internet age who think that because they are able to do a thing they must, and that the ease with which they do the thing becomes the whole of their justification for doing it.

The army of followers is irrelevant—they are what they are, and will be so until they face some compelling reason to be otherwise.

The "intellectuals" are another, more troublesome, matter, not in the least because they are either dishonest in their arguments, or just not terribly bright. If you need or want an example of what I'm about to describe, just put "Stephan Kinsella" (with the quotes) in your web browser and read any of the dozen or so pages that also feature the phrase "intellectual property". If you read all of them, you'll find the same four or five or six mantras repeated endlessly (along with exhortations to read the "master work of the ages" concerning IPR).

1. Ideas want to be free!

2. Information is not scarce!

3. Information is "nonrivalrous"!

4. You (the creator, inventor, artist) must find a new business model!

5. You can't protect a pattern!

6. Copying is not theft!

Let's deal with these in order.

1. "Ideas want to be free." Wrong. Ideas have no desires one way or the other—they simply are.

2. "Information is not scarce." Wow! No argument there. Just spend a few minutes browsing the Internet, or the library, or your local bookstore, or take a college course. Information is literally everywhere. But information, while ubiquitous, is not the issue. The issue is what you do (or are capable of doing) with it. We all have (or can have) access to the same ideas, but what each of us does with (or makes of) those ideas cannot help but be unique because each of us is unique.

3. "Information is nonrivalrous!" The argument is that "my having it doesn't prevent you from having it". No argument there, but see the point above. Take the information and do what you will with it. But do it yourself. If you don't have your own imagination, buy one—don't steal it.

4. "You (the creator, inventor, artist) must find a new business model." Who says? And on what moral authority? That of the intellectual property attorney who advocates the theft of IP? And furthermore, one of the hallmarks of a capitalist economy is a division of labor. It's the property rights we're arguing about here, not the marketing process.

5. "You can't protect a pattern!" Well, here is where we really have differences and the non-IPR side shows its bankruptcy. Any idiot can create a "pattern". A great many fewer are capable of creating a meaningful pattern. And that meaningful part is really important. Before you proclaim your ignorance again about the "nonrivalrousness" of ideas or the unfettered availability of information, sit down in front of a blank piece of paper and string 50,000 words together in a coherent, internally consistent "pattern". And oh yeah, while you're at it make it funny, or scary, or dramatic, or infuriating, or unspeakably moving. I dare you. Then tell me that that pattern, an extension of your personality, is not your property and therefore unworthy of protection.

6. "Copying is not theft!" Well, that depends on whether or not you have the author's permission to make the copy, doesn't it?

And here we have the "crux of the biscuit" (thank you, Frank Zappa). The anti-IPR faction will not, or perhaps cannot, distinguish between "ideas" and the "unique expression of ideas" that constitutes that defensible pattern. It is a product (something that is produced by the combination of labor and knowledge of its owner, the author). That product is not the book you bought at the bookstore, it's the pattern that is the template for the book that is the intellectual property.

What does this mean in terms of intellectual property rights? Well, first of all, it means that this is property. Secondly, it means that, as a person's property it is defensible, even if it's difficult to defend. Thirdly, it means that property is the owner's, to pass on to his heirs. The deed to your family farm doesn't expire just because you're dead—unless you somehow fail to leave it to your heirs. None of this means, or even implies, that ideas are not free, nor that you are not free to absorb someone else's ideas and turn them into your own unique pattern.

Nor does it imply a need for the state. It does, however, demand that there must be a fundamental respect for one's fellow beings and their property—evolution beyond the stage of child development where "no one else is real", and "I want it" is an the excuse for any behavior. Of course an entity that has achieved that state of development also understands that its failure to demonstrate that respect to others will have consequences.

It is an unfortunate circumstance of our times that the state has been the mitigating force in disagreements over damaging behaviors. It is, I believe, the goal of many of us that those circumstances might change over the course of this century. But the fact remains that if someone steals your car, you are more likely to call the cops than to grab your .38 and resolve the situation yourself. Unless, of course, you catch them in the act—but be careful, especially if you live in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

More important, I believe, to the evolution of a stateless society is a fundamental cultural shift—one that is made much more challenging by the "faceless" aspect of the Internet and our instantaneous communication (you don't get the benefit of that half day it takes for the post to be picked up, to bite your tongue or find a less inflammatory phrase). A prerequisite of that stateless society will be a deeply-held and widely-recognized respect for other individuals. I believe we can start today, and I propose the following paradigm: if you wouldn't say (or do) what you propose while looking the object of your actions (verbal or otherwise) in the eye, then don't do it.

Cathy L.Z. Smith is currently working toward a bachelor's degree in history, with a minor in anthropology.

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