We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

New from the Libertarian Alliance: Benjamin Tucker and intellectual property rights

Intellectual property rights are a hot issue now, probably because there are at least two distinct intellectual and political traditions who want to talk about them. The left are having a huge push about (especially) pharmaceutical patents in the third world as Alex Knapp of Heretical Ideas reported last Sunday. So does this press release about a new book that also contests such notions.

Meanwhile many libertarians are particularly interested in the impact of the new instant copying technology that is now spreading to every other desk on earth. It used to be quite an effort to photocopy a book (although even that got the patent lawyers and lobbyists very jumpy). Now you can copy whole movies in minutes, and individual music tracks in seconds. Entire industries are tottering.

But hot issue or not, the Libertarian Alliance will always be interested in publishing a piece like Nigel Meeks’s An Individualist Anarchist Critique of ‘Intellectual Property’: The Views of Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939) (Libertarian Heritage Number 23). Follow the link and read all of it (although I’m embarrassed to say that we are still only producing our stuff in Acrobat format, a situation I hope very soon to correct). This piece is the ideal introduction to Tucker’s ideas about how ideas should, and more particularly should not, be protected. Tucker viewed the idea of intellectual property rights as suspect, but this was absolutely not from any animus against property rights as such, for he strongly supported these.

He noted, however, that even those who favour the notion of intellectual property rights do so in a strangely half-hearted fashion, both by soft-peddling on actual enforcement, and by the peculiar habit of fixing a time limit to such rights. That’s odd, said Tucker. With the usual sort of property it’s either yours for ever, or it’s not yours at all. It doesn’t stop being yours after thirty years or fifty years.

Tucker also pointed that whereas rights to physical property are essential, to settle the matter of who may make unique use of this or that physical place or object, no such arrangement is necessary for an idea. Ideas can never be scarce, the way a physical resource constantly is. If one person starts using an idea, nobody else has to stop using it.

Meek doesn’t dig into the detailed arguments about just how devastating, or not devastating, to intellectual and technological progress the ending of intellectual property rights might be. He merely explains that Tucker himself wasn’t worried on this score. If by “using” an idea we mean massive commercial exploitation of it, then maybe only one organisation can have such exploitation rights. But Tucker objected to intellectual property rights because he associated them with large organisations, with large, governmentally protected monopolies, and in general with social inequality. He thought that the abolition of patents would be an encouragement of rather than a block on commercial activity.

Tucker lived to see the rise of Communism and Fascism, and ended his life gloomy about the immediate prospects for his ideas:

… although he stated very plainly that he regarded the bourgeois democracies as at least relatively tolerable …, even by the end of his active working life he had become increasingly pessimistic about the prospects of his brand of anarchism ever taking hold.

It was those big organisations. Nigel Meek ends his piece in a similarly down-beat manner:

It is hard to say that things have improved since then. Even if Tucker and other opponents of intellectual property conventions and law were and are correct, those who benefit by them have far too much to lose to ever give them up voluntarily, and it seems for now too much political power to allow others to force them to do so.

Well, we shall see. Meanwhile, what a lot of us value about the Libertarian Alliance is that, not being obsessed with relatively ephemeral policy debates, we can allow our writers to be as gloomy as they want to be. They don’t have to be ‘constructive’ if they aren’t feeling like it. If an idea is good, the writer can say so, but if he thinks that it can’t be expected to catch on soon, he can say that also.

Feel free to make use of the above ideas, for any purpose other than large-scale commercial exploitation. No-one else will thereby be prevented from using them, and if you’re not making big money from them the Libertarian Alliance will neither expect nor seek any payment from you.

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