Are Patents and Copyrights Morally
Justified? The Philosophy of Property
Rights and Ideal Objects
Tom G. Palmer
Arguments for the right of property ownership are manifold. It is quite common for a single author to invoke a wide range of these arguments to support private property rights, as in John Locke's famous chapter on property in his Second Treatise of Government. Indeed, the convergence of varying and noncontradicting arguments on the same conclusion tends to make us more confident of that conclusion. It serves as a kind of “fail-safe” device in intellectual discourse: If five different but all plausible arguments lead to the same conclusion, we are generally more justified in accepting that conclusion than if only one of those arguments supported it. 1
Intellectual property, however, is a different matter. Interestingly, the various leading arguments that normally buttress each other and converge in support of private property diverge widely when applied to intellectual property. For example, a theory wherein property is viewed as the just reward for labor (a “desert theory”) might very well support intellectual property rights, while at the same time a theory in which property is defined as the concretion of liberty might not.
Most of the arguments discussed in this article, both for and against intellectual property rights, emanate from staunch defenders of a private property, free market system. That is not surprising, because those who strongly favor liberty and property are apt to see the concepts as intimately connected and are thus more likely to be very concerned with the theory and application of property rights. With respect to intellectual property, however, one should not be surprised if they come to differing conclusions. That happens because liberty and property in this context may be irreconcilable;