An IP skeptic

In response to David's post below, allow me to jump into the fray.

I find the debate over the validity and proper implementation of intellectual property rights both incredibly complex and incredibly interesting. I am certainly no expert in this area, but I am familiar with a few of the disputes and issues involved. Allow me to delineate a few of them.

First of all, I classify the positions taken in this debate into three broad categories: strong IP, weak IP, and no IP.

Advocates of strong IP consider intellectual property rights no different than physical property rights, or at least as similar as possible. They would make few, if any, exceptions to intellectual property rights, possibly rejecting some or all of the "fair use" laws. The temporary monopolies given to owners of copyrights and patents should last indefinitely, according to these advocates.

I have never actually met or spoken with an advocate of strong IP, although I have heard of their existence. I don't recall the specific details, but I remember reading about one strong IP advocate who believed that academics (and other authors) should have to pay each other royalties in order to reference each other's ideas, whether the reference is through quotation or paraphrase. This may seem extreme to most people, but equating intellectual property rights with physical property rights leads to some extreme conclusions. I mention this position of strong IP not because it is a voice often heard in the IP debate, but to point out that most of the people who believe in the moral legitimacy of IP rights already admit that they are willing to make some exceptions to the rule. Next come advocates of weak IP. This includes most people who believe that artists, inventors, and other creators are morally entitled to some form of protection for transferring their work without worrying about other people copying and distributing it without their permission. However, weak IP advocates usually acknowledge that these protections are justified by their consequences: that IP maximizes social welfare or that in its absence, society would suffer from a lack of art, inventions, etc.

The problem is that once one grants the need for exceptions and acknowledges the difference between physical and intellectual property, the argument becomes more consequentialist than strictly "rights" based. I have difficulty seeing how a weak IP advocate would justify his or her position by pointing to inherent rights while at the same time allowing for multiple exceptions that are not given to physical property.

Finally, we have the advocates of no IP rights; sometimes called IP anarchists, IP Marxists, or whatever derisive or praiseworthy term given to them, depending upon the perspective of the giver. These advocates can be either right-wing or left-wing, capitalists or socialists, and may use different rationales to justify their position. I'm not so concerned with the socialists, as they reject the legitimacy of all forms of property rights, regardless of whether they are intellectual or physical. More interesting are those who believe in the legitimacy of physical property but reject intellectual property rights, for various reasons.

The problem with the no IP position is that the consequences of such a policy are unknown and perhaps undesirable. Will artists - by which I mean musicians, authors, and film makers, among others - still create if they are unable to sell copies of their creations? More importantly, will companies still invest millions of dollars into drug research if the fruits of such research are no longer protected by patent rights?

As for my own opinion, I have rejected strong IP, and fall somewhere in between weak IP and no IP. I remain an IP skeptic.

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I believe there is at least

I believe there is at least one area of IP that is important to protect: trademarks. Violating a trademark by marketing counterfeit goods is fraud--morally equivalent to impersonation.

I agree. I wonder, though,

I agree. I wonder, though, how broad the definition of trademarks can go. I agree that selling a generic brand of soda with a Coke label is clearly fraud, but what if the label is merely a parody of Coke? It would depend on how likely it would be for a consumer to confuse the two, and that type of question would probably need to be answered by the courts.

I take the position that

I take the position that "IP" is not property, it is speech. It is not an object, it is an action. The only protection an author of "IP" can achieve without violating the rights of others is protection from fraud.

If I write a book, and you take it and alter it, but claim that it is the book I wrote, that is fraud--you are falsely attributing speech to me that I did not commit.

Similarly, if you take my book and claim some other person authored it, that is also fraud--you are falsely attributing my speech to some other person who did not commit it.

Considering how easy it is to alter digital media, I firmly believe there will always be a market for authors to distribute their own work, as many people will desire an "authoritative" source, to make sure they're really getting the author's work, and not a counterfeit.