Defending Intellectual Property
James V. DeLong
Intellectual property (IP) is a fine topic for anyone with a bent for mischief. Because the views of the libertarian-leaning community are both fractured and vehement, at any Cato or Competitive Enterprise Institute gathering one can idly ask, “So, what do you think of Napster?” and sit back to enjoy the entertainment. This is special fun at lunch meetings, as anyone with fond memories of the food fight in Animal House will quickly understand. If you have forgotten that scene, you can rent the movie for about $3.00, thanks to a system of protecting intellectual property that enables video rental outlets to maintain large stocks of old classics.
Despite the virtues of protecting IP, as demonstrated by such pragmatic criteria as the easy availability of old movies, not everyone likes the institution. One camp of skeptics contains libertarian-oriented critics who accept the institution of tangible property as both morally compelled and socially vital but do not believe that intellectual property is supported by the same philosophical and practical considerations. They would not allow a creator to invoke the legal power of the state to exclude others from using his creation. 1 However, they would allow self-help, ranging from encryption to contract. Their objection is not so much to the idea of intellectual property as it is to the use of state power to enforce it.
Another camp might be called the anarchists. Their view seems to be that the intellectual property should be available to all, in no way subject to the control of the creator. 2 I have yet to read of anyone propounding the proposition that a creator has an affirmative duty to create and may not withhold his effort just because he has no mechanism for obtaining recompense for the effort, but I would not be surprised to see such an argument. 3