I have been on the fence about intellectual property for a long time. The suicide of Aaron Swartz set me thinking about it again.
The non-aggression principle allows the use of violence in defence of property. This is because if I spend an hour of my life mixing my labour with the land to make a widget, and then someone steals my widget, they have stolen an hour of my life. Some might say that if I spend an hour of my life on some intellectual pursuit then it is possible for someone to steal that hour of my life by stealing my ideas. Violence is then justified in response. But is that really what is going on?
Imagine I spend time writing a novel, print it on paper, then hand over the printed paper to Bob in exchange for money. Bob copies my novel out onto another piece of paper and sells it to Charlie. Clearly no theft has occurred; the state of my possessions is unchanged. If I devote a significant portion of my life to writing a novel because I hope to make a profit, and Bob makes so many copies that I am unable to, still no theft has occurred. I still have the original copy of the novel I wrote. What I have done is mix my labour with paper and ink to make some paper with a novel written on it. That it takes intellectual effort to make a novel that people want to read rather than paper scrawled with gibberish does not make Bob’s actions into theft.
Perhaps I can come to some agreement with Bob. I sell him my novel if he agrees not to make copies of it or let anyone else see it. If he does, I can attempt to punish him in some way appropriate to breaches of contract. When Bob shows my novel to Charlie and Charlie makes a copy of it, I can punish Bob. But I have made no agreement with Charlie, who can make copies with impunity.
If it is difficult to make copies of novels and only a few people can do it, I might be able to make a business selling paper copies because no-one who is able to will want to break agreements with me. But once someone invents a device that allows anyone to easily make copies, my profits will be affected. But still no theft has occurred. I can not resort to violence.
If I am clever I might invent some way to encrypt my novel and make sure it can only be viewed on devices registered to specific individuals all of whom have made agreements with me. But if David, who has made no agreement with me, examines the device, finds a flaw in it, and starts to make copies of my novel, still no theft has occurred. David is using his ingenuity to modify objects he already possesses.
Aaron Swartz copied scientific papers onto his computer. He did this by getting his computer to ask JSTOR’s computer to transmit them, and JSTOR’s computer did so. For this he faced 35 years in jail.