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Inventors are Like Unto .... GODS.....

August 7, 2008

Recently, re-listening to the 1991 lecture "Ayn Rand, Intellectual Property Rights, and Human Liberty," by Objectivist attorney Murray Franck, I was struck by one of quotes given in defense of IP. During his lecture, Franck reads (most of) the following quote approvingly:

"When we come to weigh the rights of the several sorts of property which can be held by man, and in this judgment take into consideration only the absolute question of justice, leaving out the limitations of expediency and prejudice, it will be clearly seen that intellectual property is after all the only absolute possession in the world. The man who brings out of the nothingness the child of his thoughts has rights therein which cannot belong to any other sort of property. Land or chattels are pre-existing in some form, and the rights therein are limited in many ways, and are held in the great service of the world, but the inventor of a book or other contrivance of thought holds his property, as a god holds it, by right of creation; with his silence or inaction the sustenance and advance of millions yet to be may vanish into the great darkness again. His brain has brought the seed out of the infinite, planted it in good soil, tended it with the care that only the sower can feel. Surely the world should not deny him a share of the increase he has brought about, and if he, giving the reversion of his property for all time to his race, is granted the product of his creation for half a score of years, he should surely be secured against being plundered by the law as well as by the lawless."

Franck says the quote is from one "Forvold Solberg" [sp?], "a former register of copyrights", but my google-fu indicates that the author is one Nathan Shaler, Professor of paleontology and geology at Harvard from 1869-1906, in his Thoughts on the Nature of Intellectual Property, and Its Importance to the State (1878). It's perhaps a bit ironic that the author quoted approvingly by an Objectivist in support of IP was a racist, one-time Creationist, and author of a book about some idea's "importance to the state"!

In any event, the latter part of the quote is extremely utilitarian: "the world" should give the innovator or creator "a share" of the wealth he contributes... by giving him a monopoly on it for about ten ("half a score") years.

The first part--about how inventors are "like gods" calls to mind Rand's embarrassing justification for smoking--that it's symbolic of fire "tamed" at man's fingertips.

The quote also emphasizes very explicitly that Randians and other IP advocates believe "creation" is an independent source of rights: you hold your intellectual creation like a god, "by right of creation."

I note also that Franck says in the lecture that copyrights should survive in perpetuity.

Incidentally, I graduated from law school in 1991, the year of this lecture, and listened to it soon after, about the time I was beginning to practice IP law (1993 or so). I had recently morphed from an initial flirtation with Objectivism to Rothbardian anarcho-libertarianism. I was very interested in this lecture, since I had long struggled with Rand's weak justification of intellectual property--which was especially troubling since she claimed that "patents are the heart and core of property rights." The lecture failed to convince me; I kept searching for better justifications of IP than I'd seen from Randians. After shooting blanks for a few years, I finally came to the realization that I was unable to find a justification for IP ... because it's unjustifiable and contrary to individual rights. By 1995 I had reached my current views on IP, as can be seen in this exchange between me, Franck, and David Kelley, in the IOS Journal: Murray I. Franck, "Intellectual Property Rights: Are Intangibles True Property," IOS Journal 5, no. 1 (April 1995); Kinsella, Letter on Intellectual Property Rights, IOS Journal 5, no. 2 (June 1995), pp. 12-13; David Kelley, "Response to Kinsella," IOS Journal 5, no. 2 (June 1995), p. 13; and Murray I. Franck, "Intellectual and Personality Property," IOS Journal 5, no. 3 September 1995), p. 7 (all of these except the first are here; I find only this bad link to Franck's first piece).

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