Intellectual property: an unnecessary evil

Intellectual property rights can hinder technological and cultural advance by stifling creativity and immitation

Mike Finn-Kelcey / Reuters / File
British author JK Rowling poses with a copy of her book "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince" at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, July 15, 2005. Each new book sells enough in its first day to keep the author "in style," writes guest blogger Jock Coats. If there were no intellectual property laws, would Rowling still have written the Harry Potter series?

Intellectual property rights – better thought of as intellectual monopoly rights – are an unnecessary evil. They are unnecessary because all their stated, utilitarian aims can be achieved by other means. They are an evil because granting artificial rights to non-property restricts everyone else’s property rights. They are more likely to be used to stifle the creativity, innovation, and emulation that underpins technological and cultural advance; and they concentrate wealth and power in the hands of privileged non-creators more interested in milking selected others’ efforts.

Dignifying them with the phrase “intellectual property” is a contemporary conceit to conceal crude market interference through state granted privilege with the flimsiest gossamer of respectability. The primary origins of patents lie in maintaining the state’s coffers, and of copyright in state censorship of ideas.

Property rights arise from a desire to prevent conflict over scare resources. Ideas, patterns, recipes and processes are non-scarce. Intellectual monopoly laws impose different time periods and restrictions. From time to time legislators arbitrarily decide to protect previously unprotected categories of invention. Even legislators then don’t regard them as genuine property, ownable in perpetuity by the first owner and their heirs until they chose to dispose of it.

However, many claim that, without intellectual monopoly, those with innovative and creative minds would not use those faculties, insufficiently rewarded for their creativity. This is by no means self-evident. If...

...why do we think they need state protection now? The plain truth is that because of the grip of the small number of media giants who control the production, marketing and distribution of their favoured artists, many more undiscovered artists subsist on live gigs in local venues. And because of the modish patent trolls who have no intention of ever exploiting their patents, many innovators never even know someone else “owns” an idea until the writ arrives end up broken.

19th century libertarians ranked Intellectual Monopoly as state created privilege that impoverishes the majority. We should heed them: they are still destructive, unnecessary, statist and evil.

Further reading:

Stephan Kinsella’s “Against Intellectual Property” at the Mises Institute (and an audiobook version of it by me)

Stephan’s thinktank, the “Centre for the Study of Innovative Freedom” (C4SIF)

Against Intellectual Monopoly” by Michele Boldrin and David Levine and the supporting website “Against Monopoly: Defending the Right to Innovate

…and if you are minded to do a bit more study on Intellectual Property from a libertarian perspective, though Stephan Kinsella’s Mises Academy course “Rethinking Intellectual Property: History, Theory and Economics” is coming to the end of its current run, you might keep an eye out for it running again.

April 26th is "World Intellectual Property Day". Jock Coats blogs at OxFr33.

Add/view comments on this post.


The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link above.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.