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Hayek on Patents and Copyrights

January 16, 2009

From Individualism and Economic Order (ironically under copyright), Chicago, 1948, pp. 113-14.

Where the law of property is concerned, it is not difficult to see that the simple rules which are adequate to ordinary mobile “things” or “chattel” are not suitable for indefinite extension We need only turn to the problems which arise in connection with land, particularly with regard to urban land in modern large towns, in order to realize that a conception of property which is based on the assumption that the use of a particular item of property affects only the interests of its owner breaks down There can be no doubt that a good many, at least, of the problems with which the modern town planner is concerned are genuine problems with which governments or local authorities are bound to concern themselves. Unless we can provide some guidance in fields like this about what are legitimate or necessary government activities and what are its limits, we must not complain if our views are not taken seriously when we oppose other kinds of less justified “planning.”

The problem of the prevention of monopoly and the preservation of competition is raised much more acutely in certain other fields to which the concept of property has been extended only in recent times. I am thinking here of the extension of the concept of property to such rights and privileges as patents for inventions, copyright, trade-marks, and the like. It seems to me beyond doubt that in these fields a slavish application of the concept of property as it has been developed for material things has done a great deal to foster the growth of monopoly and that here drastic reforms may be required if competition is to be made to work. In the field of industrial patents in particular we shall have seriously to examine whether the award of a monopoly privilege is really the most appropriate and effective form of reward for the kind of risk-bearing which investment in scientific research involves.

Patents, in particular, are specially interesting from our point of view because they provide so clear an illustration of how it is necessary in all such instances not to apply a ready-made formula but to go back to the rationale of the market system and to decide for each class what the precise rights are to be which the government ought to protect. This is a task at least as much for economists as for lawyers. Perhaps it is not a waste of your time if I illustrate which have in mind by quoting a rather well-known decision in which an American judge argued that “as to the suggestion that competitors were excluded from the use of the patent we answer that such exclusion may be said to have been the very essence of the right conferred by the patent” and adds “as it is the privilege of any owner of property to use it or not to use it without any question of motive.” (Continental Bag Co. v. Eastetn Bag Co., 210 U.S. 405 (1909). It is this last statement which seems to me to be significant for the way in which a mechanical extension of the property concept by lawyers has done so much to create undesirable and harmful privilege.

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