The Abolition of Intellectual Property

Information should be free.

Music, movies, books, software, and other intellectual or artistic products should be a source of income only to the extent that something physical is being sold (e.g., a CD as opposed to its songs, a physical book as opposed to its chapters). The very notion of intellectual property is, in our digital age, no longer tenable; this turns out to be yet another aspect of life that shows there are limits to the capitalistic model that maintains that self-interest (profit) is the only feasible human motive.

I suspect that most of the people who read this blog are sympathetic to the idea, for instance, of free music. But even if you regularly use BitTorrent or some other P2P sharing, you probably have some reservations. You might think that what you're doing is stealing in some sense, or at least that there's something vaguely wrong about it (just not wrong enough to prevent you from doing it).

I would suggest that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it, that in fact trying to charge somebody money for an idea is the real theft. It seems the other way only because this absurd notion, "intellectual property", has been institutionally imposed on these older legitimate concepts: ideas, images, theories, words, artworks, songs, films, etc.

Let me back up these claims with arguments. First, consider the consequences of abolition. Imagine, tomorrow, that all copyright laws were to be purged from the books. Industry groups like the RIAA and MPAA would vanish in a puff of smoke and sulfur (along with a good many lawyers). Would this mean that artists, authors, entertainers, and so forth, would also cease to exist, no longer having the means to support themselves? By no means--here's why:

Let me use an analogy, by looking at a case where ideas still exist free of the notion that they are property. Scientists conduct experiments and publish the results but this data is freely available (especially as more academic journals are going online). This relatively free distribution (I'm skipping some of the details, but bear with me) is not only not a problem, it is of tremendous benefit to scientists everywhere. Indeed, this openness is a prerequisite of the success of the sciences; it is necessary for innovation and progress.

There's a system in place so that credit is given where it is due--i.e., by citing sources--but these citations do not function as a source of income. Imagine what it would be like if we had to pay a fee every time we cited someone else's research results or theories: it would destroy the institution of science as we know it.

How is it, then, that science is a sustainable practice if people aren't directly profiting from their ideas? Simple: they support themselves by other means. Most scientists are either academics--making a living by also being educators, teaching classes, supervising dissertations, and the like--or are private researchers working for companies that sell other goods and services that put these ideas to work.

The same can apply to the music industry and by extension to movies, television, and other areas. Musicians can make a living by selling the kinds of things that aren't information-based and can't be freely copied, say, by performing live shows for money and by selling CDs and T-shirts and other physical media just as they do now. If they are good and develop enough of a following, they can make a decent living.

As an example, I need only cite my two favorite bands, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, who are moving to a model like this--and quite successfully, I might add. Now, of course, not every musician has the popularity that these groups enjoy. It will be hard for new artists to emerge and establish a name for themselves, but this is already the case under the current regime. Unfortunately, not everyone has the talent to make a living off of music. (This of course doesn't mean that they can't still play music in their free time; they may just have to take up another vocation to support themselves.)

There'd be other advantages to eliminating copyright and similar laws. Consider remixes and the practice of sampling in genres like hip-hop. This has almost become impossible because of the idiocy of intellectual property--contrary to the corporate propaganda, trying to charge money for every sample, no matter how brief, has severely stifled creativity and innovation in music.

Art has a long history of artists "citing" famous images produced by other artists without paying some absurd fee to them. (I'm not an art historian, so I can't offer tons of concrete examples, but it's a long recognized practice in the art world. One example: Marcel DuChamp's famous rendition of Mona Lisa with a mustache.) As long as we give people credit and don't try to pass off their artistic or intellectual creations as our own, we are not doing anything morally objectionable.

See, I'm not entirely opposed to capitalism (I'm not for the abolition of all property as is, say, Marx), but we should reassess our assumption that people can own ideas, words, images, and the like. These belong properly to the public domain and constitute a common good--something which the rampant reign of capitalism has practically destroyed.

In the spirit of this alternative proposal, I must give credit to Wired's Chris Anderson, in particular, who wrote an article in this month's issue of the magazine outlining something very much like this. I've just expanded on his arguments and extended their scope. I will gladly recognize my indebtedness to his thinking, but don't expect me to send him a check!


Addendum: Some further support for this position just occurred to me. I'm going to try to articulate this dialogically by invoking an imaginary objector--I will do my best to prevent turning him into a straw man.

"What you say is all well and good, but the fact of the matter is that it's against the law, and is therefore wrong."

I grant that it is currently against the law. This is a question of fact, or at least of legal interpretation. My argument is that the law does not have a solid ethical justification here. Whether that merits breaking the law is a question I'll remain neutral about. If nothing else, my conclusion would warrant trying to change the law.

"But there is some justification to the law. If I write a poem or make a sculpture or compose a song, assuming I already legitimately possessed the tools and materials used, shouldn't I own that thing that I've made?"

To answer this I think requires looking at the institution of property more generally. Unless you are someone like Locke that thinks that property is somehow a natural right--a view I won't contest here, but one I doubt is commonly held today--you recognize that it is a social institution. It's a matter of convention, so there are no facts to determine whether an idea is "really" a piece of property or not aside from the social facts, i.e., the laws and implicit norms of a specific culture.

Now let's consider the kinds of justifications given for property laws. There are numerous practical advantages to be able to have exclusive control over certain physical objects. Since these are obvious I won't go into details or try to provide further justifications, but take this exclusive control as a recognized good. Now, it would be bad if someone took one of those objects from me without my permission, because I would no longer have that object under my control.

But what if, hypothetically, he could just make a facsimile of that object for his own use? I would keep my object and he would have one of his own to control as he saw fit. In fact, when I wasn't using my object, it would just be selfish of me not to make it available for that process of copying, although it would be nice if the guy gave me credit if someone asked him, "hey, where did you get that?" I think you can see how this hypothetical case is roughly how things stand with ideas, which can be shared without anyone losing anything.

"But what if, say, I put a lot of hard work into making that item while this other person skips all that and just takes the finished product for his own use? Isn't this unfair?"

I think you are getting at something here having to do with issues of relative status. I'm not hurt by losing the object, but if I'm in competition with this other individual I am now at a disadvantage, because he benefits from my work without having to put forth the effort himself (aside from the relatively easy act of the copying). So, to employ a useful distinction: in absolute terms, I am no worse off because I have lost nothing; in relative terms, however, I am worse off because someone else has gained something without paying the costs I paid to make that object.

"Precisely. The same thing applies to issues of prestige or fame. It would be wrong to profit from someone else's efforts like that. Isn't this a sufficient justification for intellectual property?"

I would say it's a justification but not a sufficient one, and one that happens to be overruled by the following considerations. The problem with status competitions and the like is that they are zero sum games. In order for someone to be rich or famous, most people have to be relatively poor or unpopular. Now, this is good to the extent that it can motivate people to produce things that everyone can benefit from; you do your work, I do mine, we trade, etc., etc., you have the foundations of a market economy.

But, there are plenty of non-zero sum games whose benefits for all of humanity can outweigh the benefits that are accrued by playing according to the rules of zero sum games only. Hence, with cooperation, you have a good which is greater than the sum of its parts.

(If this isn't obvious take the following example. Let's say we're both farmers in a relatively simple culture and we're trying to prepare our land to raise food, but there are a couple of large rocks that we each have on our property. Neither of us is strong enough to move the rocks alone, but if we join forces and take turns, first I help you move your rock then you help me move mine, we can move them. The same level of effort, roughly speaking, is able to be more effective because it's redistributed more sensibly.)

So, the question we need to ask is this: are the consequences from losing the motivation that relative status offers (i.e., the "profit motive") sufficient to eliminate the goods that we recognize and enjoy from having a wide assortment of intellectual and artistic creations at our disposal? In other words, it again comes to the issue of how we can encourage people to put serious effort into producing ideas and images, how we can foster a culture in which arts and sciences and other intellectual disciplines flourish.

But most good artists and writers and so forth do what they do because they enjoy it. The issue is not, "How can we motivate people to become artists?"--because the motivation is already there. The real question is rather, "How can we ensure that people can be artists and still be able to make a living?" And I've answered that above. They can sell things other than their ideas, such as live performances and physical objects that "put their ideas to work".

These artists are doing their part by creating goods that people enjoy, so they aren't mooching off of society, but if they lack sufficient talent (i.e., not enough people are interested in what they're producing), then they will just have to find other ways to support themselves. Them's the breaks.

"You have thoroughly convinced me. I was foolish not to see the larger picture. You truly are a great thinker and wise person and probably also an excellent dancer."

Thank you, imaginary interlocutor, you yourself have proven to be a formidable opponent (since you're my creation after all ;-) ).


To summarize: because ideas and information can be copied easily, they can be shared among individuals without causing any absolute losses. The relative losses, in terms of prestige and so forth, pale in comparison to the goods that are produced by free sharing because we are dealing with a non-zero sum game. The profit motive is able to operate in other ways and there is no serious danger of losing the goods of rich artistic/intellectual communities.

With respect to music, which all along has been the main example I have in mind, the only people who stand to lose are industry groups, lawyers, and perhaps the big record labels themselves. They invoke the artists for support (the really outspoken artists tend to be the ones who make a lot more money than they deserve, but society doesn't owe them the perpetuation of an extravagant lifestyle) only as a cover to promote their own interests. Humanity as a whole would be better off without these institutional monstrosities. They are no longer necessary and the people who constitute them should look for other lines of work. The RIAA is the real thief here, not music downloaders.


chosha said...


1. You say that money can be made from putting ideas to work and creating physical goods (eg CDs) or services (eg concerts). But if an idea or product can be copied without payment, then someone who DIDN'T come up with the idea can make all the money from it. Should a person have to be talented at marketing or production to have their worth as an ideas person recognised?

2. Which brings me to my next point - you're totally disregarding specialisation. A person may be awesome at ideas or design, and yet have no skills or knowledge for bringing the idea to a realised state. The way their idea is used may not relate to their own ideas of how it should be used. They still deserve credit, and payment, for the work they've done.

3. You make it sound like ideas have no relative worth (not against duplicates, but against other original ideas). If an idea can sell a million of a product while another idea will sell only 10,000, shouldn't the creator of the million dollar idea be rewarded relatively well for that idea?

4. Scientists working on knowledge or technology that has the potential to make money absolutely DO NOT send all their findings off to some journal for free UNLESS they have patented the idea. Cosmetic companies, pharmaceutical
companies, etc keep their money-making ideas well guarded until they can protect them.

Bottom line is, you take away the incentive to produce ideas, you take away the ideas, or at least access to them. Bruce Springsteen might still write a song, but doesn't mean we'd ever get to hear it.

And I think you should read that Wired article again, because a lot of it was talking about giving something away for free BECAUSE it benefits you monetarily in other ways to do so.

You might also want to check out Trent Reznor's blog post about how only a very disappointing 18% of people who downloaded the Saul Williams album chose to pay anything for it. That method is not as successful as you might think.

specter_of_spinoza said...

Thanks, Chosa, for your helpful comments. It'd be nice if you had been more polite, but perhaps you were annoyed about my joke with the interlocuter which was, I'll grant, a little over the top. I probably sounded like someone utterly sure of himself, and I know how annoying that can be.

I will do something totally atypical, especially for the Internet, and grant that you are right. Clearly my arguments do not adequately address the patent process (among other things). I may just have to revise my view, and try to argue instead for a slimmed down version of intellectual property laws instead of their total abolition.

(Although, I thought I addressed the issue of alternative revenue streams that was brought up in the Wired piece, but since Anderson doesn't argue for eliminating copyright laws, they still likely play a substantial role in his account.)

Unfortunately, I don't have time to devote to this project right now, but perhaps I'll return to it in the future. I shall definitely have to do some more research on the matter. Cheers.