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L. Neil Smith's
Number 587, September 12, 2010

"Separation of science and state"

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Time—Going, Going, Gone
by Cathy L.Z. Smith

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Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

At the outset let me specify that I am confining my remarks here to "books" and the act of authorship because that is the area with which I am most conversant. I believe this argument extends equally well to others who engage in the production of what might largely be termed "art", and which includes song writing, painting, sculpture, and other creative endeavors, but they are not my primary focus.

One prevalent argument against intellectual property rights rests on the assertion of the absence of scarcity of "the property". Not only is this a false claim, it furthermore misidentifies the nature of the actual "property". In the act of authorship, the author consumes that which may, in fact, be his or her most scarce resource—time. In addition to its undeniable scarcity, the author's time is demonstrably "rivalrous"—not only can no one else use it, but the author himself may use it only once.

In effect, then, intellectual property rights represent a sort of cosmic timeclock. The author invests his scarce, non-renewable resource in the intellectual process that results in the "pattern" of the work in question. But what you buy, in fact—what the book represents—is a portion of the author's life expectancy invested in the creation of that pattern.

The book (and the "new" business model it once represented—ask any wandering minstrel or village storyteller) offers the author a more efficient means of communicating than sitting down with individuals or groups and telling the story over and over again. Freed from the need to recommunicate those same expressions, the author may turn to the creation of additional works. Finally, the book offers the consumer a more efficient opportunity to access the work, allowing him to determine when and where he will receive it (rather than listening at the convenience of the storyteller), and at a small fraction of its actual cost. And it would seem, all things considered, that the cost of the author's time becomes a bargain, amortized as it is over the lifetime of the author and available to everyone for the same price, regardless of what he might be entitled to charge (based on his marketability) in a one-on-one setting.

Market information (sales) indicates to the author if his allocation of resources is correct (or at least acceptable). If the author's works are highly sought after, his time is more highly rewarded through additional sales (but not through increased costs to any individual customer). If the market does not value his time sufficiently to warrant further investment in the creative process, he must try another approach—or find another occupation. Thwarting the market—through the theft of intellectual property—and thereby denying the author the information the market generates will unquestionably and necessarily result in a misallocation of his scarce resources, most probably resulting in a shift away from the creative process into something more "tangible" and, therefore, less vulnerable to theft.

Authors who write for a living are professionals in the same sense as accountants, economists, and lawyers. They apply their knowledge, skills, experience, and talents to an issue or problem or situation, offering clarification, solution, observation, or perhaps merely entertainment. If an author need not be compensated for his time and skill, on what grounds, then, does a lawyer demand to be paid? Authors bear much of the same overhead as other professionals, though they typically have no client to charge on an hourly basis. The book you purchase, then, pays your portion of the author's fee.

Since it is highly unlikely that the consumer of a work is being forced to read it, one presumes that the relationship between the author and the consumer is a voluntary one. The author has provided the consumer with something that particular individual consumer theoretically values. In exchange, he asks that the consumer not give away increments of the author's time that have not been purchased. That is the explicit agreement represented by the copyright symbol. Your act of purchasing the book constitutes your acceptance of the agreement—just as your arrangement with your attorney constitutes your acceptance of his terms of service.

Whether you abide by that agreement is another matter entirely.

Followers of some anti-IPR proponents will see that what many choose to give away are their amateur musings, outside their paid specialty, and not the professional opinions for which they are handsomely rewarded. Additionally, it is entirely their choice which information to share and which to hoard. Others are academic faculty, seeking tenure, and operating under a requirement to publish openly. (In the case of academia, the primary currency sought is citation and attribution.) If an author chooses to give away his time, it is his to give. If he chooses to sell his time, that is also his choice. If you choose to purchase his time you agree to his conditions (just as you do with the lawyer, accountant, economist, psychologist, physician, in fact any of myriad professional practitioners). I make no judgment regarding the market strategy of giving one's work away—I merely claim that it is the right and responsibility of the person to whom the work belongs to make that decision for himself.

When you (the fee-payer) copy and distribute the author's work without his sanction (and in violation of your explicit agreement with him) you are, in fact, giving away the author's most valuable and scarce resource, his time, a resource upon which you have no claim beyond that purchased via the physical manifestation of the book. As an exercise, ask your attorney how happy he would be to have you reproduce his professional opinions and share them with all and sundry.

In the end, those who insist they are within their rights to dispose of another's time will do what they wish regardless of the justice or propriety of it. But those who understand that time is finite will consider that the support they give to those authors whose work expresses their values, or expands their appreciation, or challenges their perceptions, is not about the physical object they hold in their hands but rather about the irreplaceable resources expended to create that work.

If you are among those to whom the idea of simply taking something because you want it is a notion you got over as a child, thank you, both for growing up and for abiding by your own sense of right and wrong. If you can't or won't agree to the terms of a sale, you have the free will to choose not to buy the object in question. If you seek the information contained in those works but are unwilling to pay the cost you are, at best, a freeloader. If you agree to the terms and then violate them, you're guilty, at least, of breach (infraction or violation of a law, obligation, tie, or standard), and likely not to be trustworthy in other respects. True free riders (those who do not actively seek to acquire the information at no cost, but who merely happen upon it) obviously cannot be bound by such agreement; their subsequent behavior with respect to the acquisition of an author's works will demonstrate their nature.

This issue (IPR) has caused me to spend hours of my life in unexpected, but productive ways, and I am compelled to close the circle, as it were, and return to the event that sent me down this path in the first place. So let us return, briefly, to the issue of plagiarism. Plagiarism (an issue distinct from copyright infringement) is defined in dictionaries as "the wrongful appropriation, close imitation, or purloining and publication, of another author's language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions, and the representation of them as one's own original work." [; accessed 9/6/10 at 2:10 pm MDT]. Here I present evidence of one member of the continuously reconstituting collection of individuals occasionally known as "The Shire", claiming authorial credit for the document in question. Please take note of the cutline that follows the declaration at: [this link]

And here is the restitutive claim that will, for me at least, end this discussion. The articles of this document are sufficiently mangled as to be of no interest to me as a Signatory to the original document. However, the preamble is reproduced word for word, punctuation included, from the original Covenant of Unanimous Consent. If you want to put an end to this emnity:

1. Remove the preamble from the "Shire Declaration". (Simply hacking off the preamble would be sufficient, removing the necessity to regather signatures.)

2. Replace the existing copies of the document with your new version on all websites to which you have controlling access and publicly request replacement or removal from sites you do not control.

3. Issue a public apology—in all of the places you've previously libeled or slandered (in the ethical sense, no I'm not threatening you with a lawsuit, just public humiliation) the author and others associated with this dispute—then we can all go about our business.

If you're willing to make it right, I'm willing to accept your apology.

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

This article is one of a series:

"Let's Play Nice"

"Misapplication of the notion of 'public goods' and the author's extinction paradigm"


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