[Originally posted on Mises.ca]
These days, everyone and their mother seems to have an opinion on intellectual property. This has its positives and negatives.
The positives are that the more people are aware of the issues affecting society, the more likely they are to take a stand to demand change or protect the status quo. This applies to everything from police militarization to laws governing the administration of voting.
The negative is that, when it comes to intellectual property at least, nearly everyone is utterly confused by what intellectual property is on a fundamental level. This can lead to misguided outrage and result in even more destructive legislation.
So just what is intellectual property?
If you look in a legal dictionary or a government website, IP is defined as a property right for a “creation of the mind”–for example songs, literature, art, or nearly any kind of invention.
But, what IP really is, is a government grant that allows you to dictate what other people can do with their own property.
Let me say that again for emphasis:
Intellectual property is permission to tell other people what they can and can’t do with their own property.
How does this work?
If you hold the intellectual property rights for a simple hammer, and I use my own wood and metal on my own property on my own time to make a similar hammer, you can then dictate how and if I could ever use the hammer that I made myself.
When it comes to music or movies, it’s even worse. If I buy your CD or DVD, and you hold the intellectual property rights, not only can you stop me from using my own computer and blank disc to make copies of the CD/DVD that I supposedly bought and own. But you can also dictate which other people can be on my property while I use my own CD/DVD player and TV.
Compare this with standard property rights. If you have a car, and I buy the car from you, I can then drive the car however I want. I can use it to drive myself to work, or take my friends to parties, or even chop it up and sell it for parts. I can even enhance the car by giving it a new paint job and selling it to someone else, without giving you a penny. Under standard property rights, you have no right to tell me how I can use the car, or with whom I can share it with, or whether I’m allowed to sell it for profit. And if someone tried to sell a car with these stipulations, almost no one would agree to them.
Another difference between standard property rights and IP has to do with the economic concept of “rivalry”. If I have a car, then you physically cannot drive my car while I am driving it. The fact that both of us cannot use the same thing at the same time is called rivalry. But if I have an idea, for example attaching an engine to four wheels with four seats and a roof, you can find your own engine and seats and wheels to make your own car, and you wouldn’t be taking my car away from me. Ideas are not subject to rivalry.
In other words, you can take away someone’s physical property so they can no longer use it, but you cannot “take away” their intellectual property. An idea is not a physical thing that can be taken the same way that real property can.
So there you have it. Having an intellectual property right is really having the right to tell other people what they can do with their own property. It is fundamentally different thing from real property rights, in that two people can use the same idea at the same time in different locations, whereas two people can’t use the same piece of real property at the same time, let alone in more than one location.
In short, intellectual property isn’t property at all. It is an intellectual justification for coercion and theft of real property.