Mises on Copyrights

By Greaves, Bettina Bien | Freeman, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Mises on Copyrights


Greaves, Bettina Bien, Freeman


The widespread reproduction and "sharing" of copyrighted music on the Internet led a friend to ask me what Ludwig von Mises would have thought about the situation. The more I pondered the question, the more I concluded that Mises would have considered this just another case where copyright law must play catch-up with new technology.

Many people believe they should be allowed to reproduce and "share" copyrighted material free of charge, some because they don't want to pay for the privilege and others because they believe it is wrong to grant monopolies to authors, composers, musicians, or anyone at all for that matter. But there is more to the problem than monopoly.

Mises once said, more or less facetiously, that while he had known book authors who opposed patents because of the monopoly privilege they give inventors, he had never known a book author who opposed copyrights because of the monopoly privilege copyrights give authors. Mises may have had Murray Rothbard in mind, for in Man, Economy, and State and Power and Market, Rothbard defended copyrights and criticized patents. Rothbard said it was possible for an inventor independently to come up with precisely the same invention that someone else had developed earlier and had already patented. In that case, the earlier inventor would receive patent protection and the other would be out of luck. Rothbard considered that unfair.

However, Rothbard said it was inconceivable that a second author would ever succeed in arranging words in the same order as they had appeared in a previously published book without having knowledge of the earlier book. Being a unique production, a book is entitled to copyright protection.

Mises, of course, didn't talk about monopoly itself as being "good" or "bad." Monopolies could exist on a free market in the rare case when the owner of a factor of production controlled the total supply of that factor. And in the even rarer case that the demand for a monopolist's product was such that buyers were willing to pay an above-market price for it, he might be in a position to reap a greater financial gain by restricting production and selling fewer units at a higher price per unit. Mises considered this perhaps the only instance in which producers could violate consumer sovereignty with impunity.

The case of government-created and/or government-protected monopolies was another matter. Hc didn't discuss them from the point of view of their "morality" or "immorality," however. he simply talked about their economic aspects, saying that government-granted monopoly privileges change the situation by introducing coercion into the picture. Such privileges make consumers pay higher prices for the monopolized good or service and force them to restrict their consumption of other things. Government grants of patent and copyright protection are examples.

However, it appears from what Mises wrote in Human Action that he wasn't opposed to copyrights and patents as such. A patent or copyright is denned as an agreement on the part of the government to protect the property rights of an inventor or author to his creation for a certain period of time. The inventor or author pays a price for this protection: he agrees to turn his creation over to the public, at no cost, when the protection expires.

Now if the government is to protect property, it must define that property.

Technological development is nothing new, and when it affects the character of a form of property, it inevitably requires the refining and redefining of the rights of individuals to their private property. The copyright laws have had to be revised and adapted whenever new methods of production and reproduction were developed. The Encyclopedia Britannica says that according to Roman law, when a person wrote words on a parchment, the composition belonged to the owner of the blank materials. This definition of ownership must have arisen when monks copied manuscripts laboriously by hand, letter by letter, on valuable parchment sheets furnished by their monastery.

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