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L. Neil Smith on IP

I hesitate to link this essay of L. Neil Smith because, if it influences you without his consent, you are guilty of stealing from him. Maybe you think that you have his implicit consent because he has posted it online. He doesn’t see it that way.

“There is no discernible difference between physical property and intellectual property,” he writes. “The farmer begins with a tree-covered lot that he must clear and plow and plant, and the writer with a damnedly blank page or screen.”

What is wrong with that analogy? Yes, the farmer owns the land. Yes, the writer owns the page and screen. The farmer, however, does not own the idea of plowing and planting. Nor can the writer prevent others from arranging letters and words in a particular way because he somehow owns the ideas expressed on his paper. Land and paper need economizing. Plowing and writing do not: they are ideas and can be infinitely reproduced without rivalry over the original.

To put it another way, if Crusoe, alone on a island, discovers how to pick berries, he owns all the berries he can pick. No one may steal what he has gathered. If Friday shows up and start to pick berries in the same way, Friday is not thereby a criminal. He is merely learning just as everyone in society learns from others. If Crusoe uses violence to stop him from picking berries on grounds that Crusoe owns the very idea of berry picking, it is Crusoe who is the criminal.

If you are a baker, the cake you make is your own. The idea of baking, and the techniques you use, cannot be claimed as your exclusive possession if you share them with others. If you are a snappy dresser, you own your tie and hat, but if every time you go out in public you are inviting others to share in your ideas of wearing a tie and hat.

I would suggest some charity here for Mr. Smith. He says that he hasn’t thought much about this topic, and that undoubtedly accounts for his errors and wild rhetoric. But truly this is a hard subject for libertarians. They’ve been misled for many years, even decades, by sloppy thinking on the topic. It takes a long time to think through all the implications. The biggest problem for Smith is that he has painted himself into a corner and probably won’t admit error, no matter what.


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Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder of the Brownstone Institute and an independent editorial consultant.