Over at Larry Lessig’s blog, David Friedman has a really interesting comment about libertarian attitudes toward patent and copyright law (I’m going to relax my usual rule about the phrase “IP” because of the way Friedman and Lessig have framed it):
You write: ” There is a divide in the libertarian camp about IP extremism.”
I think that understates the case. There has long been a divide among libertarians about IP itself. Some see it as the purest and most morally defensible form of property, on the grounds that it is produced by the human mind without using any unproduced resources, such as land, which one might have difficulty justifying the ownership of. Others see it as a clear violation of rights, on the grounds that if something such as a book belongs to me, I have the right to do with it as I will.
This is an accurate summary of the state of play among philosophically-minded libertarian generalists. Anybody’s who’s spent a lot of time in libertarian circles can almost recite the competing arguments in their sleep. Frankly, they start to seem kind of vacuous after a while.
This is most obvious in the anti-“IP” camp. If you believe that copyright and patent law are nothing but infringements on peoples’ natural rights, then you have a simple, compelling answer to every question in this area of law. You’re also going to be completely left out of the practical discussions of copyright and patent reform. Because if all copyright and patent monopolies are illegitimate, there’s no obvious way to tell which ones are the most illegitimate. Or to put it a different way, if you’re an “IP” abolitionist and you want to participate in contemporary policy debates, you need to have an additional set of principles that tells you which parts of the copyright and patent systems to reform first, and these principles are ultimately going to do more to drive your policy choices than the principled opposition to government monopolies in all of their forms.
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