Reports about the new movie Atlas Shrugged: Part II indicate that it highlights Ayn Rand’s deep confusion on the whole issue of intellectual property (IP)—e.g,. from my friend Jacob Huebert. Stephanie Murphy mentions some of the IP confusion in the film in her recent PorcTherapy podcast (at around 1:05). And Chris Bassil, of Hamsterdam Economics, in Atlas Shrugged Part II: Hank Rearden Confuses his Principles, notes:
At one point, industrial steel magnate and metal manufacturer Hank Rearden is ordered by the state to sell his Rearden metal to them, which he has up until this point been refusing to do. He is also forced to sign away his rights to the metal, so that the state can distribute its procedure to other manufacturers and it can be universally produced. At this point, Rearden accuses the agent in his office of trying to take his patents from him.
This, to me, is a philosophically complicated position. Now, Ayn Rand, despite taking a position against the government in many cases, was a huge supporter of patents and intellectual property rights. As Stephan Kinsella has pointed out here, Rand endorsed them on a number of occasions:
Patents are the heart and core of property rights.
Intellectual property is the most important field of law.
Without getting into the larger points concerning intellectual property (which Stephan Kinsella covers well here, and which I discussed briefly in the Duke University Chronicle here), I think that Rearden’s position on this is a bit contradictory. He is indignant that the state would move to deprive him of his patents, thereby also depriving him of the fruits of his labors. But isn’t that what those patents do to others? Don’t they prevent others who develop similar products from bringing them to the market? It is true that, within the context of the film, Rearden plays a heroic producer who alone seems able to keep the steel industry afloat. But this glosses over the daily considerations of intellectual property laws, which are seldom enforced on such a genuine basis.
Furthermore, Rearden’s position seems to me to be a little bit disingenuous. After all, he opposes the state’s use of force. In fact, he constantly pushes state officials to actually endorse the use of force instead of merely allowing it to be implied. At the same time, however, his patents themselves rest on just such a threat. I see this as something of a double standard.
Of course, Rand might respond that the force backing Rearden’s patent is legitimate, since, in her view, patents are themselves legitimate derivations of individual property rights. I don’t agree with this either, but that would require a much more extensive blog post to cover. For now, see my article in the Chronicle on it, and Kinsella’s book, articles, YouTube videos, or even audiobooks available for free from the Mises Institute on iTunes U.
Overall, this is why I think that Ayn Rand’s work largely functions more as a gateway to discovery of free-market ideas rather than as a truly solid foundation for them. In my opinion, much of what Rand was right about is better said by others, and there was a lot that I don’t think she was right about, either.
And as Jeff Tucker notes in his recent comments on the movie:
Of course this gets us into the Randian view of IP, that great industrial ideas — appearing out of nowhere in the minds of a few — must somehow be assigned to owners and protected by government. And sure enough, patents and copyrights as property play a major role in Atlas II, as when Hank Reardon is blackmailed into assigning his patents as a gift to the government. It’s a scene that completely overlooks that these patents themselves were actually granted by government in the first place and would not exist in the free market.
In fact, for any viewer schooled in the role of patents today, this scene actually makes the viewer less sympathetic to Reardon. For a brief moment, he actually looks like a member of the monopolist class who is dependent on government favors. Not good. This scene reinforces for me my sense that the single biggest mistake Rand made was not in her ethics, economics, or religion but in her view that ideas are property and must receive government codification.
I haven’t seen either Part I or Part II yet of the movie versions of Atlas, but none of this is surprising to me, given Rand’s completely confused IP views. Some of these IP views are of course present in her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged and could be expected to leak into the films (at least the IP issue doesn’t dominate or ruin Atlas, like it does The Fountainhead, which basically glorifies IP terrorism). Rand’s view of IP and rights was very confused. I have referred to it as libertarian “creationism” and have criticized it, as well as her confused view of the relationship between labor, ownership, homesteading, and production (see, e.g., most recently, my recenty speech Intellectual Nonsense: Fallacious Arguments for IP (Libertopia 2012), and various blog posts on these and related fallacies and confusions, e.g. Locke on IP; Mises, Rothbard, and Rand on Creation, Production, and ‘Rearranging’, Rand on IP, Owning “Values”, and ‘Rearrangement Rights’, Objectivist Law Prof Mossoff on Copyright; or, the Misuse of Labor, Value, and Creation Metaphors, and Hume on Intellectual Property and the Problematic “Labor” Metaphor. [Keep reading…]