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The Mercantilism of Our Time

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Someone handed me a book the other day--a cult classic among music geeks--and urged me to read it, and, when I had finished, sign my name in the front cover. That way I could be added to the already long list of readers in the front cover, each of whom add added his or her scrawl to the book after having read it.

How charming!

Except for one thing: this is complete violation of the spirit of intellectual property law. All these readers were sharing the same book instead of buying a new copy. Think of the revenue lost to the publisher and the royalties lost to the author! Why, if this gets out of hand, no one will ever write or publish again! These readers are all pirates and thieves, and they should probably be subject to prosecution.

So goes the rationale behind intellectual property law. It's what economists call a "producers' policy," design to create maximum revenue for one side of the economic exchange, consumers be damned. In that sense, it is exactly like trade protection, a short-sighted policy that stymies growth, robs consumers, and subsidies inefficiency.It's Bastiat's "petition of the candlemakers against the sun" all over again.

Apply the IP principle consistently and it's a wonder we tolerate public libraries, where people are encouraged to share the same copy of a book rather than buy a new copy. Isn't this also an institutionalized form of piracy?

The defenders of IP would have to admit that it is. They are often driven to crazy extremes in sticking the claim that copying is a form of theft.

I asked one emphatic correspondent about the ethics of the following case. I see a guy in a blue shirt and like it, so I respond by wearing one too. Is this immoral?

No, he said, because the color blue occurs in nature.

What if a person draws a yellow happy face on the blue shirt? Can I copy that? No, he said, this would be immoral. I must ask his permission and gain his consent. Actually, it's even worse than the this case suggests. If even one person had previously worn a blue shirt with a happy face, no one else on the planet would be able to do that without seeking consent.

It should be obvious that if everyone were required to ask seek the permission for the use of every infinitely reproducible thing that "belongs" to someone else--every word, phrase, look, vocal inflection, chord progression, arrangement of letters, hair style, technique, or whatever--or if we were really to suppose that only person may possess the unique instant of any of these things, civilization would come to a grinding halt.

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Contact Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Editorial Director of the American Institute for Economic Research. He is author of It's a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes and Bourbon for Breakfast: Living Outside the Statist Quo. Send him mail.

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