Intellectual property rights is a tricky subject and I have changed my views on it countless of times over the years. In the libertarian/anarchist sphere Ayn Rand was one of those who defended intellectual property rights, while Stephan Kinsella and Stefan Molyneux belong to those who believe proponents of intellectual property rights are advocates of coercive monopoly.
The main arguments of those who criticize the IP usually are:
- "Theft implies that someone lost something" (how about a potential several year time investment?)
- "Intellectual property equals thought crimes!" (Is a copier or hard drive a part of the brain?)
- "Digital information is only ones and zeroes, I can't help that they organize in a certain way on my hard drive!" (Autistically silly.)
The argument that "nobody has lost anything" is exceptionally weak, mainly due to the following:
Copyright is usually regulated by agreements (eg, EULAs when installing an program). In order to get access to copyrighted material to start with, the user has to agree to a contract. If the material then is copied, a breach of the contract has been committed.
This is usually brushed aside because "it's difficult to bind third parties to a breach of contract if they haven't been a party", but apart from a few things: first and foremost, it draws attention from the original actual breach of contract. Secondly, perhaps the third party isn't part of the agreement, but he's aware that the material is protected, so he's just as guilty as an individual who allows his bank account to be used for money laundering, even if he doesn't carry out the laundering himself.
I'm not a patent lawyer, but my "gut feeling" is that patent laws needs stronger legal protection than it has today. Of course, there are boundary issues with regard to patents. Two different patents can "overlap" each other, e.g. Or someone can make an invention that in fact constitutes an improvement of an already existing invention. (Ayn Rand addresses this in her essay on patents and copyrights in "Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal". But rather than providing an exact solution, she merely points to the problem and writes that the legislation should "define and protect all the individual rights involved".)
However, one can (or more correctly should) not take these boundary issues as a reason to abolish patent law, as the IP opponents want. If patent law is abolished, then all ownership will soon be threatened, since there's already precedent. There is no fundamental difference between patent law and property rights in general. It's fundamentally about the right to the fruits of your labor.
The very use of the term "intellectual property" is on the whole a smokescreen, as you lump together patents, trademarks, copyright, etc, despite being very different concepts. It's very weird to call copyright "thought crime" just because patents more or less have that effect.
The term "intellectual property right" is also a misnomer because copyright and patent actually deals with the right to something material and substantial. An invention must at least exist in the form of a prototype before one can make a patent claim. A story must be written down on paper, a painting must be painted, a composition must be written down in a score. If I compose a melody and just walk around and hum it, I have no copyright for now; I have to make a demo at least.
I mention this because you often hear arguments of the type: "If I think a thought, then intellectual property would mean that no one else has the right to think the same thought - or has to pay me royalty for thought every time it is thought." It's a straw-man argument, but IP opponents seem to get stuck on this point, even after the mistake has been identified.
In fact, "ownership" has both a material and an immaterial component. What you own is material, but the ownership itself is immaterial. If I own a book, the book is a physical object, but the fact that I own the book is not physical. If so, I would only own the book when I hold it in my hand. But the fact is that I own it as much when it's in the bookshelf, or when I've lent it to a friend. And if I own an apartment, I don't only own it when I'm physically present in it, but just as much when I'm at work.
Just as another example of how absurd it is to try to distinguish "intellectual property rights" from property rights and ownership in general.
Opponents of intellectual property rights aren't better than simple burglars. In fact, I could argue that they are worse. The burglar only single items, while the IP opponents are shaking the very fundaments for all property rights, to make theft legal.
One can claim ownership to something because it's ultimately a product of one's own thinking, translated into practical action. When patents are abolished, it's only a matter of time until all other proprietary rights are also abolished.
That's my five cents on intellectual property. Oh, but what about the title of this article? Stumbling on a delightful clip from 1972, featuring Neil Young browsing through a record store and accidentally finding a bootleg of a Crosby Stills Nash & Young concert, actually prompted me to write this article in the first place. Watch for yourselves and enjoy this historical document: