It’s My Idea!
The nature of property and what constitutes rightful claims to property defines many aspects of life – cultures with differing views on property will most certainly vary widely in belief systems, norms, social institutions, and so on. When it comes to Libertarianism, the guiding notion of what constitutes property is that property is the extension of the self and that one has a rightful claim to themselves. Libertarian views on property are quite similar to Locke’s theory of property in that physical property is created by mixing labor with land/resources (which in turn, can be bought and sold, including one’s own labor.) But, generally, Libertarians refute the notion that ideas and thoughts, otherwise known as ‘Intellectual Property’, are valid, and therefore no one has a rightful claim to such property.
The form of intellectual property I would like to discuss and defend is not the form of intellectual property that is upheld by the state and its laws; rather, the intellectual property I will be discussing deals with the literal ownership of one’s own ideas, regardless of the existence of a state or Intellectual Property laws.
Every action that someone engages in is a result of an idea or thought – a will to accomplish something, the drive to move or build, fix or destroy. No one could mix their labor with land or engage in trade, or do anything, for that matter,without their own thoughts and calculations guiding them and causing their physical body to act in accordance with their will. If one accepts the idea of property, in its general form, then they must then derive the root of physical property – and how physical property comes about.
All physical property comes about through the manifestation of ideas. Simply put, one must own their own ideas in order to own anything that those ideas accomplish or create. An idea or thought is what brings you to the market, what guides transactions, what brings about trade-and at the very bottom of all of this, creation itself. Creation of any physical property must come about through intangible thought processes. If no one owns their own thought processes, then who/what does?
For example, let us look at the case of a chair. For simplicity’s sake, this chair was fashioned with materials all owned and created by the owner, without anyone else mixing their labor with the chair or the resources. The chair, with its stiles and brackets, were all shaped by the labor of the owner. The wood, being necessary for the completion of the chair, was chopped down by the owner, whose sole intent was to create the chair. This chair did not come into existence on its own, nor did the tree shape itself into the chair without the labor of the owner; yet, the owner’s labor did not act on its own accord. The owner, for whatever reason, thought it necessary to have the chair, to chop down the tree, to whittle down the wood and to carve it into curves and fashion a seat for himself. The owner of the chair owned the idea to create the chair, and similarly owned the means (his body) to make the chair. Even if we change this scenario and say that another person told him to make the chair, then we can logically assume that the other person owned the idea to make the chair, despite the action being taken through the other. The idea must originate somewhere; moreover, the originator has the ability to hold onto the idea, save risking that idea being acted upon by someone else who thinks of the same or similar idea. When we look at the existence of the chair in reverse chronological order, then we can derive the nature of intellectual property and how all physical property is a result of the latter.
This form of intellectual property is not the form that (some) libertarians have come to abhor. The form of intellectual property that exists today comes is more often than not in the form of copyrights, patents, regulations, laws, etc. (many of the things that Libertarians dislike.) Therefore, it is only natural for Libertarians to dismiss this type of intellectual property without distinguishing this form of intellectual property from true intellectual property.
True intellectual property extends only insofar as the originator’s ability to act upon their idea in a timely fashion or efficient manner. Here enters what economists generally refer to as “the first to market.” If one is the first to market with an idea, then they are the ones who will benefit the most, and be accredited with the idea. Note, this DOES NOT MEAN that the state has a right to enforce a perpetual first-to-the-market condition, which is typically enforced by patents and the like. The originator of the idea has the ability to cover investment and start-up costs by being the first to market. The risk of losing this natural grace period should be enough to drive the originator to get to the market first and make enough on the idea or product as to cover the costs of putting the idea forward. After this grace period, however, the idea/product is obviously likened to imitation; however, this is a good thing. From an egotistical standpoint, the originator had earned their keep and has a legitimate claim to the original idea. From an altruistic viewpoint, the originator has created something that can be enjoyed by all, and be openly traded in the market. In this double-instance, all are satisfied, and there was no impediment to innovation nor was there any dead-weight loss in the economy on the whole.
Again, I want to clarify that Intellectual Property is obviously open to being copied, imitated, ‘stolen’, and so on. No property is permanent, nor do you have any say in property once it is sold to another person. Once the idea is manifested into something physical, buyers have the ability to acquire the product and make copies of it, or re-sell it, or give it away for free (in the free market, or freer markets.) All physical property is subject to this, wherein such property is derived from thoughts and ideas.
What happens with state intervention in this scenario is, essentially, the establishment of a monopoly. The originator would be able to extend this grace period of higher profits (and higher costs for the consumer) so long as the state enforces their monopoly. It is important to recognize that, in both cases, the originator does indeed own the idea for whatever product they set forth-the difference in the former cases opposed to the latter is that the state ensures that the originator can hold the price high for longer than what it would naturally be. This is the difference that many anti-IP Libertarians fail to see. The idea still originated with the person, and they still were the first to market. The latter case is the undesirable one, the case that unfairly utilizes force to upset the natural course of events, a course of events that would otherwise been beneficial to all. This is an important distinction that must be made. In both cases, Intellectual Property still exists; however, the state manipulates and distorts its true form. Originators of ideas do not have the sole claim to it for all of eternity, just as a land-owner would not own the land for all of time. In its true essence, Intellectual Property is simply the recognition that an originator has developed a unique and original idea; it is NOT the establishment of a monopoly on the idea.