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Chords on a Napkin

August 16, 2006

The absurdity of intellectual property is starkly illustrated by a new campaign of the Music Publishers' Association (MPA). Having gone after lyric sites on the Internet they are now shutting down sites that publish, get ready for this, guitar tablature (sheet music for guitars of popular songs).

Cui Bono? "The MPA represents businesses that make money from the creation and sale of sheet music and tablature... They're understandably unhappy about trying to compete with free tablature available on the Internet, especially when people rip off their work and post it online (most tabs are user-created, but such copying does happen)."

What really struck me here is a quote from the manager of a guitar tablature site that has been shut down as a result of the MPA's campaign:

Manager Rob Balch wonders where the line should be drawn between infringement and simply figuring out how to play a song. "When you are jamming with a friend and you show him/her the chords for a song you heard on the radio, is that copyright infringement?" he asks. "What about if you helped him/her remember the chord progression or riff by writing it down on, say, a napkin... infringement? If he/she calls you later that night on the phone or e-mails you and you respond via one of those methods, are you infringing?"

Little does Mr. Balch know but the common sense questions he raises not only cast doubt against this campaign but cut deeply against intellectual property itself. Stephan Kinsella in his classic JLS article Against Intellectual Property (pdf) identifies a crucial problem with intellectual property in that it conflicts with rights to tangible property:

What, though, is really wrong with recognizing "new" property rights? After all, since new ideas, artistic creations, and innovations continually enrich us, what is the harm in moving with the times by recognizing new forms of property? The problem is that if property rights are recognized in non-scarce resources, this necessarily means that property rights in tangible resources are correspondingly diminished. This is because the only way to recognize ideal rights, in our real, scarce world, is to allocate rights in tangible goods. For me to have an effective patent right — a right in an idea or pattern, not in a scarce resource — means that I have some control over everyone else's scarce resources.

...the IP advocate must propose some [new] homesteading rule along the following lines: "A person who comes up with some useful or creative idea which can guide or direct an actor in the use of his own tangible property thereby instantly gains a right to control all other tangible property in the world, with respect to that property's similar use." This new-fangled homesteading technique is so powerful that it gives the creator rights in third parties' already owned tangible property.

In other words, under IP if you jot down the chords to my song on your napkin, that napkin's mine baby.

For more Austro-libertarian papers on intellectual property and the vital issue of property in general see Property in the Study Guide.

[Thanks Digg]

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