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An Open Letter to Leftist Opponents of Intellectual Property: On IP and the Support of the State

August 4, 2008

We libertarian opponents of IP sometimes perplex IP advocates and leftists. There’s an analogy here to the way libertarians, and especially anarcho-libertarians, are treated by mainstreamers. The press does not know what to do with libertarians, for example. They typically use “libertarian” to denote civil-libertarian ACLU types; while libertarian thinkers and institutions are often described as “conservative.” And “anarchy” is usually associated with chaos, bomb-throwing, or leftist anarchists–rather than with anarcho-libertarianism, which is the only genuine form of anarchism. (See my What It Means To Be an Anarcho-Capitalist.)

There is a common assumption in society that “intellectual property” is a legitimate type of private property right. Thus socialists and leftists oppose IP because of their hostility to private property rights, capitalism, corporatism, and industrialism. Thus, many IP opponents are leftist, anti-capitalist types (for example, Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen are, IIRC, at least somewhat leftist [if I am mistaken in this, I stand corrected; in any event I would welcome email providing backup/correction, or examples of other leftist anti-IP arguments]). Likewise, many libertarians accept the fallacious notion that IP is a type of property, and thus support IP because they support property (and because many well-known libertarians, such as Ayn Rand, were strong advocates of IP).

Conversely, those who innately or independently oppose IP, are often classified as leftists, or even believe themselves to be leftists (I believe a similar phenomenon explains why the press tend to be left; they naturally tend to be pro-freedom of speech and freedom of press, but accept the mainstream dichotomy that if you are for personal liberties, you are against economic liberties, and vice-versa; they do not understand that economic and personal liberties are essential and complement each other).

The truth is that the only principled case against IP is the libertarian one, as I’ve argued in my Against Intellectual Property. The problem with IP is that it undermines and infringes on private property rights: it lets some person gain rights of control over the property already owned and acquired by others (for example, a patent or copyright gives the holder a veto right over certain uses others might put their own property (their bodies, paper, raw materials) to). To oppose IP is to uphold private property rights–libertarian rights. To oppose IP while also supporting socialism is a confusion.

And more than this. IP is not possible without legislation; legislation is not possible without the state. And conversely: with a state, you always get legislation; and legislation always leads to a proliferation of bad laws (see my Legislation and the Discovery of Law in a Free Society).

What this means is that not only is your case against IP weakened if you do not adopt libertarian principles and reasoning to undergird it. But if you support the state at all–if you are not an anarcho-libertarian–then you do not really oppose IP. If the state exists, it will legislate, and it will probably enact IP laws, along with plenty of other bad laws. So, if you support the state, you really can’t complain about IP laws. As Ludwig von Mises pointed out, “No socialist author ever gave a thought to the possibility that the abstract entity which he wants to vest with unlimited power—whether it is called humanity, society, nation, state, or government—could act in a way of which he himself disapproves.

IP opponents must not oppose only the “worst excesses” of IP. They must oppose all IP, root and branch, on principled, pro-private property, grounds; and more than this: they must oppose the state itself, and legislation as a means of making law.

So shape up, non-libertarian IP opponents. If you want to make a real case against IP, you must ground it in sound political principles. For some suggested reading, see:

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