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Intellectual Property

20 Feb 2003

Let me gist it for you. “Intellectual property” is not the greatest term — it’s a useful metaphor in some instances, but it’s just a metaphor, and most of the time, a poor one. Obviously, intellectual property isn’t physical, and that distinction makes some very big differences. For one, IP is the only kind of property that even can be copied — you could manufacture a pair of shoes similar to the ones I’m wearing, but you couldn’t exactly copy them. Moreover, your duplicate shoes would require significant resources to make, like leather and rubber and those little round metal things. By contrast, digital tools allow us to make exact copies of IP for practically no cost or effort, which renders the idea of scarcity meaningless. In the economics of IP, there is no marginal cost, and there is no supply curve.

Another important point is that “intellectual property” is, in many ways, what culture is. Songs, stories, paintings, books, architecture — all of these things are the common soil in which culture grows. And the richer the soil, the better. Here again, the “property” metaphor gets us into trouble. If an idea is “owned” like regular property, then it can’t be part of the commons. As a society, we should want to enrich the common soil, to add to it, to build Alexandria rather than burn it.

So how does society encourage this growth? The same way society accomplishes almost everything: with laws. In this case, copyright law. Here’s the idea: for the good of society, we want to increase the “intellectual property” that is set free, that is in the commons. But in order for new works to be created, there has to be incentive for the creator to do so. The goal of copyright law is to artificially balance these two opposing forces. Copyright creates a supply curve where there isn’t one naturally. As a society, we grant a temporary monopoly to creators for their works, giving them economic incentive to keep producing. And it’s in the best interest of society for that monopoly to be as short-lived as is necessary.

Now. The question of exactly how long that monopoly should last is up for debate. It used to be 14 years, back in the day. The constitution just says it should be for “limited times”. The current law is complicated, but it’s basically the life of the author plus 70 years. If you ask me, that’s insanely too long, but the trend is what’s really disturbing. Copyright has been extended 11 times in the last 40 years. With every ammendment, less of our culture is free, and more of it is owned. Boys and girls, we’ve been robbed.