Semantics and IP Antics

One of the reasons why IP-abolitionists oppose “intellectual property” is because IP monopolies in effect boil down to a restriction on existent ownership rights. To this charge, a common retort heard even from libertarians, is that all property rights are not absolute (i.e. “you can’t shoot your gun wherever you choose”, “the right to swing your fist ends by my nose”, etc.) and so too IP laws can morally and thus justly restrict people from using certain configurations or arrangements of their already owned property.

It occurred to me that this is a mere semantic quibble. If we substitute the word “to” for the word “with”, we no longer have an equivalence between IP and those examples. For argument’s sake, we can even agree with the gist of those examples and suppose that an owner may not always have the right to do certain actions with his property but this wouldn’t contradict a fundamental right to do certain actions to his property, which is more precisely what anti-IP arguers hold.
This retort focuses solely on the restrictionist view in that it’s [morally] just to have laws that restrict existent property rights. But those examples are a flawed comparison to begin with; we would never hold that property rights to a gun would allow the violation of another persons’ property.
This is because ownership isn’t a bundle of certain permissible actions or rights, but rather the totality of  a “negative” quality– a restriction upon others from violating the owner’s right to control. In any given context, violations of property rights is what determines the impermissibility for any given action, not a deficiency in the ownership rights of the hypothetical gun or swinging-fist.

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  • Of course. I agree that we have property rights but we do have limitations on those rights on the basis that we cannot violate another person’s rights.