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Intellectual Properganda

As I noted in Ideas Are Free: The Case Against Intellectual Property, statists used to be much more honest. The federal government used to a Dept. of War. In 1947, its named was chagned to the Dept. of Army of the “New Military Establishment,” and in 1949, to the Department of Defense. Europeans are usually more honest than Americans. Socialists in Europe admit they are socialists, or even communists. In America, they call themselves “conservatives” or “liberals.”

On the IP front, many pro-IP libertarians get upset if you describe patents and copyrights as monopolies. If you point out that the first modern patent statute was England’s Statute of Monopolies of 1623, you can expect to hear a lot of strained arguments–or silence. The more honest defenders of IP readily admit the monopolistic aspect of patent and copyright. (See my post Are Patents “Monopolies”?)

In fact, state-granted privileges like patent and copyright were not originally called property at all. This was a latter innovation, used for propaganda purposes. This was observed by Fritz Machlup and Edith Penrose in two seminal studies:

Those who started using the word property in connection with inventions had a very definite purpose in mind: they wanted to substitute a word with a respectable connotation, “property”, for a word that had an unpleasant ring, “privilege”.

[Fritz Machlup & Edith Penrose, “The Patent Controversy in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Economic History 10 (1950), p. 1, 16]

While some economists before 1873 were anxious to deny that patents conferred “monopolies”–and, indeed, had talked of “property in inventions” chiefly in order to avoid using the unpopular word “monopoly”–most of this squeamishness has disappeared. But most writers want to make it understood that these are not “odious” monopolies but rather “social monopolies”, “general welfare monopolies”, or “socially earned” monopolies. Most writers also point out with great emphasis that the monopoly grant is limited and conditional.

[Fritz Machlup, U.S. Senate Subcommittee On Patents, Trademarks & Copyrights, An Economic Review of the Patent System, 85th Cong., 2nd Session, 1958, Study No. 15 (text excerpt)]

We live in an age of euphemism, metaphors, and doubletalk. Taxes are “voluntary”. The state is a result of a “social contract.” War is defense. Murder is collateral damage. And state-granted censorship, protectionism, privilege and monopoly are now “property.”

We live in an age of lies. The state is the great liar. I used to say that the state is good at one thing only: destruction. But it is also good at lying and propaganda. (See my post The State, Destruction, and Propaganda.)


Stephan Kinsella

Stephan Kinsella is an attorney in Houston, director of the Center for the Study of Innovative Freedom, and editor of Libertarian Papers.