16 Nov 2009

Jeffrey Tucker Continues His Assault on IP

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I admit there are still some areas that make me uneasy, but ever since reading Stephan Kinsella’s “Against Intellectual Property” [.pdf] I have thought IP cannot stand. At Mises.org Jeff Tucker goes over one of the latest absurdities flowing from the principle of owning ideas:

Some Harvard professors are taking very seriously their “intellectual property rights” and have claimed copyright to the ideas that they spread in their classrooms. What prompted this was a website in which students posted their notes to help other students.

The professors have cracked down. It might have been enough to legislate against this behavior in particular. Instead, they wrapped their objection in the great fallacy of our age: the professor owns his ideas and they may not be spread without his permission.

This action has opened up a can of worms, and now other universities have taken up the puzzling question: how do you at once enforce intellectual property and uphold the ideal of a university, which is, after all, about teaching and spreading ideas to others?

If I’m understanding Jeff correctly, students at some schools are actually having to (or may soon have to?) sign contracts like this before taking a class:

My lectures are protected by state common law and federal copyright law. They are my own original expression and I record them at the same time that I deliver them in order to secure protection. Whereas you are authorized to take notes in class thereby creating a derivative work from my lecture, the authorization extends only to making one set of notes for your own personal use and no other use. You are not authorized to record my lectures, to provide your notes to anyone else or to make any commercial use of them without express prior permission from me.

Of course we can come up with “obvious” cases where it seems as if someone is stealing from somebody else. E.g. if someone bought a copy of one of my books, slapped his name on it, and mass produced it as “his” book, I’d be furious.

However, given my present views, I would have to say that technically he didn’t steal “my book.” If he committed a true crime at all, it was that we had an implicit contract that he wouldn’t engage in such behavior when he bought the physical item containing the arrangement of words that I (and the editors) had discovered / created.

If you say people can own an idea, you run into all sorts of problems really fast. E.g. let’s say a mathematician proves some new and important result (like the Riemann hypothesis). Can subsequent mathematicians rely on the result in their own proofs, or do they need to pay him to get a license to use it?

If you can imagine the absurdity and material poverty the above system would cause (relative to one where there are no property rights in theorems), then you can imagine how much more sensible and richer we just might be if States didn’t enforce IP laws.

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