Intellectual Property and Its Discontents

Article excerpt


By any material measure, this is the greatest of times to be alive. Technological innovation has resulted in higher productivity and living standards across the planet. Even many infected with the AIDs virus, albeit still awaiting a cure, are living full and productive lives.

This didn't just happen by accident. Make no mistake: Our lives have been made healthier, more pleasant and more productive because of the property-rights model of innovation, where those who invest their time, money, creativity and effort in developing new products and services get to direct their own efforts, own the results and profit from their inventions.

An increasing number of workers and investors are finding a home in the innovative and creative professions. It's called the information economy. The U.S. Patent Office says applications for patent, copyright and trademark protection have exploded, and that they have trouble keeping up with innovation.

But some attack this successful property-rights model of innovation. They reflect a few, vocal group activists who insist there is something terribly wrong with the way research and innovation is done. And they want it changed.

These activists, perhaps best broadly described as the free culture movement, cloak a radical agenda beneath their innocuous idea that "information wants to be free." They demand that nations (and even individual U.S. states) pass legislation requiring purchase of open-source software. They are uncomfortable with corporations directing investment in research and development and owning their innovations.

The activists thus want to radically change how pharmaceutical innovation is accomplished. They propose that governments should nationalize intellectual property, levy new taxes to fund R&D, and then incentivize R&D through prizes administered by new government-sponsored enterprises or, even better, international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) staffed by technocrats unaccountable to voters.

The free culture movement asserts that strong intellectual property protection inhibits incremental innovation, and that ownership tempts owners to horde intellectual property and to keep it away from the public.

But these assertions are obviously false. It is precisely ownership of intellectual property that makes it widely available. The much-vaunted public domain is better viewed as a vast wasteland of works unknown and practically unavailable, because no one has an incentive to make them available.

Disney's ownership of Mickey Mouse doesn't inhibit anyone from creating something new inspired by Mickey; it simply keeps them from stealing Mickey and making him their own. …