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Category: academic

On intellectual monopoly

I recently discovered Michele Boldrin and David Levine‘s book Against Intellectual Monopoly*, in which they develop an arguably much more radical critique of the current ‘intellectual property rights’ regime than the one proposed by the alternative du jour – Lawrence Lessig‘s Creative Commons platform.  I find the differences illustrative of the way our understanding of property has slowly but inescapably eroded, while simultaneously we have expanded the hollowed-out shell of that term.

Lessig’s approach, and that epitomised by the CC platform, is best illustrated by this TED talk where he discusses among other things traditional property rights (as in rights to a scarce good such as land). His argument is about the way technology enacts changes in our understanding of the limits of property rights, and he illustrates it with the example of a court case revolving around military planes trespassing over someone’s property. In the larger context of his talk this particular episode serves as a sort of comic relief, as in – how absurd and inadequate the farmer for suing the air-force for trespassing, clearly he was not aware of the progressive march of technology and its effects on our understandings of property. In a nutshell, Lessig’s point is as follows – property rights evolve with technology, and our laws need to evolve accordingly; copyright and intellectual property have to be protected, but we need to keep in mind the way technology revolutionizes social norms.

Boldrin and Levine on the other hand attack the very notions of copyright and intellectual property at their very root, and their erudite argument exposes these notions for what they are –  state-granted monopoly to a non-scarce good. The book is full of historical examples from the dawn of the industrial age, and the authors attack not only the notion of copyright but also its chief support argument – that of defending creativity. They also point out that key to understanding copyright and intellectual property laws is their origin – The Statute of Queen Anne – and its thinly veiled intentions of total state control over dissent of opinion. I am reading their excellent book in tandem with Stephan Kinsella’s Against Intellectual Property, and it seems to me these books represent a growing intellectual alternative to the Creative Commons platform.

* The book is available for free download