Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Intellectual Property in a Market Anarchic Age

The question of whether intellectual property really exists as a concept, or reflects flawed premises, is always a contentious issue regardless of one's political worldview.

Opponents of intellectual property invoke the fact that the products of our mind can be thought by someone else without force as an intuitive reason to reject the concept of intellectual property itself. If two people think of a new invention at the same time, and yet only one obtains the patent, how can we say that the patent-holder has any more right to the idea than the other fellow ? There seems to be an inherent problem in that ideas, unlike chairs or widgets, can be created and possessed by more than one person at the same time. It would be silly to refuse to acknowledge the presence of a problem there, if only an intuitive one.

Yet it is also difficult for any consistent advocate of property rights to deny the existence of intellectual property. If the product of our actions is our property when effected with our hands, then how can the product of our minds - the greatest tool that anyone has - not be property as well ? It seems just as intuitive that the text of a novel, or an invention, is a piece of property on par with a chair or widget, and that copying them wholesale is a form of theft.

So it seems that the real problem here is in determining when a formulation is arrived at independently, and if the difficulties in doing so makes the notion of intellectual property impossible to uphold. Furthermore, there is no denying that the patent system and copyright system we have now are damageable, but part of this is no doubt due to its enforcment by the state (the state reserves itself the right to take away your patents whenever it wants them : "what the Lord giveth, he taketh away" indeed).

In looking at the issue of feasibility of anything, we have to turn to the market for possible solution, as markets are the best process we have to harness people's skills to solve problems. And we already do have a partial solution : non-disclosure agreements. Granted, it does not completely solve the problem I described, and does not apply to all domains, but it's a free market solution nevertheless.

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