Intellectual Property

on Monday, July 11, 2011

A friend sent me an article on intellectual property rights written by Ayn Rand. I have a few questions for her:

1. If copyrights and patents protect real property, why do those protections expire? If I buy a house, why does my ownership last forever, but my ownership of an idea does not?

2. If a machine were invented tomorrow that could replicate anything on earth, would it be best to use government force to stop people from replicating things in their homes, forcing them to pay royalties each time a golf ball or dining-room chair is replicated?

3. In practice, copyrights and patents are very expensive to obtain and very expensive to defend; too expensive for a normal person to enjoy their protections. Why should all taxpayers bear the cost of maintaining the courts of law, and pay the salaries of the judges in these courts, for a service they will never use, and which makes many of the things they purchase more expensive?

4. Why aren't we patenting recipes? If I throw tomatoes, onions, and basil together and call it "marinara," should I not receive royalty payments from all those people who wish to do so in the future? Should not all the taxpayers in the United States be forced to pay for police to inspect supermarket shelves, making sure that Newman or Kraft foods has not offered for sale a red sauce that infringes on my intellectual property?

In my opinion, intellectual property laws make things more expensive and slow innovation (patented designs can't be improved upon without permission) for the majority of people, and benefit companies that can afford to defend their patents.

If something can be copied for free, without harming anyone, I think it is silly to call that theft. If I invent a bow and arrow in my cave, should it be illegal for you to copy me? What if you have an idea for a system of pulleys that will vastly improve the design of the bow, making it ten times stronger, but I won't give you permission to improve upon my original design?

Real wealth is not primarily contained in ideas. It is primarily in making and transporting to market useful things that people want; things that improve our lives.

The cost of patents and their enforcement should not be paid by innocent citizens. The costs should be paid by the inventors themselves. If Edison invented the lightbulb without IP laws, he could simply take his design to various manufacturers, and make an agreement to manufacture 100 million of them before releasing them to the public. They would be released suddenly, and the inventor's advantage would be in moving millions of the new bulbs to market before anyone else has a chance to copy them. Inventors would still be able to make a lot of money without IP laws.

Authors, instead of releasing a book all at one time, could provide one chapter at a time by subscription, and charge people a monthly fee to receive future chapters of the book. Today, people are willing to pay a lot to have first access to HBO and Showtime programming, even though it would be free to have a friend record the show and watch it the next day. The same would be true of books.

IP laws are a great example of something that looks good on paper, but in reality benefits the wealthy at the expense of the poor. The existing laws keep music distribution companies and publishers rolling in money and we have to pay for the courts that hear their cases. The people actually writing the books or making the music get a small portion of the income generated. In a world without IP laws, most of the money would go directly to the artist, and in the internet age, there is no longer a need for stamping records or printing books. Jonathan Coulton makes music at home and sells it on the internet. You can listen for free, and it costs 99 cents to download a song. He makes $500,000 per year. If he can do that, who are we to imagine that there is any need for intellectual property laws?