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.
Law professor Tom W. Bell of Chapman University is an emerging pro-property rights anti-IP star (and one of the handful of patent lawyers who publicly opposes patent law) — his draft book Intellectual Privilege: Copyright, Common Law, and the Common Good looks very promising. For a concise statement of his views, see his wonderful performance in The Great Debate on Intellectual Property, Cato Policy Report (January/February 2002). Note how solid and refreshingly lucid and libertarian his approach is, as contrasted, say, with that of James DeLong in the same publication (I debated DeLong in an Insight magazine symposium in 2001, where he gave similarly weak arguments for IP).