Intellectual Property: What is it good for?
The rhetoric of property rights has always run along two parallel tracks: the utilitarian and the moral. Utilitarians may acknowledge the arbitrariness, even the injustice, of private property while holding that it is nevertheless our best guarantee of freedom and prosperity. They might invoke the specter of Soviet collectivism, along with the “tragedy of the commons” — the depletion of resources held in common because no one holds the property rights that might encourage conservation. For the moralist, however, such arguments are beside the point: Whatever the political or economic efficiency of private property, it must be held inviolable because of the immorality of infringing on another person’s property. When the economy was mostly based on the production of physical commodities, the utilitarian argument tended to have the upper hand. For while the moralists must fall back on tendentious metaphysics (such as Locke’s contention that we take ownership of the common by “mixing our labor” with it), the utilitarian could simply point to propertarian capitalism’s manifest ability to deliver a world of material wealth, however inequitably distributed. With intellectual property, however, the situation is reversed. There is, to be sure, a utilitarian case for it, one enshrined in the U.S. Constitution: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” But the actually existing regime of intellectual property (IP) law has long outstripped that justification. Maintaining Disney’s perpetual copyright on Mickey Mouse has no discernible benefits to the progress of anything, and even when unauthorized copies of works undermine the profits of the culture industry, as has happened most obviously to the music business, this does not seem to translate into a shortage of music being produced. Serious studies — that is, those not funded by the copyright cartels themselves — tend to find that IP is an impediment to economic growth rather than a driver of it. An intellectual-property regime that hewed to its utilitarian roots would thus be a much less expansive one than what we have today, which is why the utilitarian arguments about IP tend to come from its critics. The liberal economist Dean Baker, for example, while conceding that copyrights provide an incentive for creative work, dismisses them as “an extremely inefficient mechanism” for achieving ends that could be better accomplished through direct government support of creative work.