The Obama Administration insists that “‘Piracy is flat, unadulterated theft,’ and it should be dealt with accordingly.” Nonsense, of course. Only scarce goods can be property and therefore only scarce goods can be stolen. Ideas or information patterns are nonscarce goods. If I take your bicycle, you don’t have it anymore. If I copy your idea, now we both have it. Copying, i.e., piracy, is not theft.
As the Left is wont to do in lieu of sound argument, US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke recently related what is meant to be a heartrending story:
Recently, I’ve had a chance to read letters from award winning writers and artists whose livelihoods have been destroyed by music piracy. One letter that stuck out for me was a guy who said the songwriting royalties he had depended on to ‘be a golden parachute to fund his retirement had turned out to be a lead balloon.’ This just isn’t right.
My first immediate thought was why isn’t it right? Shouldn’t a progressive egalitarian’s own values lead him to be against intellectual property?
“What,” the progressive egalitarian should say, “you do a little work maybe once in your life, work which would be impossible if not for the shared cultural traditions from which it is derived and re-mixed, and get lucky (unearned talent, fortuitously good timing, etc.)…and you think you shouldn’t have to work for society again!?! That’s hardly fair, now is it? To paraphrase Proudhon, intellectual ‘property’ is theft!”
Lest the reader get the wrong impression, I am not as insensitive to the artist’s plight as this hypothetical progressive egalitarian. And I do not share his collectivist values. We come to similar conclusions via different reasons. I do not think that merely having an idea entitles one, legally-speaking, to be monetarily compensated by others or to have the power to prevent others from using their own property as they wish. Ideas are a dime-a-dozen. It is implementing them effectively, and in such a way as to earn a profit, that is hard. Accomplishing this is praiseworthy, but one should not rest on one’s laurels. Life, to say nothing of a flourishing life, requires productive work in order to be maintained and improved. Intellectual property is an attempt to use the coercive power of the state via granted monopoly-privilege to defy this reality as well as economic law and moral principle. The artist Secretary Locke mentioned could have saved (more) for his retirement and/or kept producing art instead of relying upon royalties to see him through his old age.
Cross-posted at Is-Ought GAP.