The Origins of Libertarian IP Abolitionism

by Stephan Kinsella on April 1, 2011

David Gordon has a great article up today on LewRockwell.com, Sam Konkin and Libertarian Theory, which devotes a good deal of space to discussing Konkin’s role in the anti-IP movement. David is absolutely correct here:

Konkin’s work on IP deserves at least equal recognition as his better-known defense of counter-economics and agorism; and, to the extent that anti-IP views come to prevail among libertarians, I predict that Sam Konkin will be a name we shall often hear.

It was great to see Konkin’s amazingly clear and perceptive thoughts on this issue, way back in 1986 before it seemed that relevant. I learned about Konkin’s views on IP a few months ago–from Lew Rockwell’s post Remembering Samuel Edward Konkin III, I think, where Lew wrote:

This weekend, … I was going over [Konkin's] Wikipedia articles, and realized I had never read what turned out to be a pioneer article mentioned there, Copywrongs, which I published today on LRC.

I noted this piece in my C4SIF blog post, Copywrongs. What’s ironic is that one of the strongest libertarian defenders of (a variation of) IP is J. Neil Schulman,1 who was a big fan of Konkin—he included an afterword to Schulman’s classic libertarian sci-fi novel Alongside Night. Schulman thinks it significant that the anti-IP Konkin “never successfully challenged” Schulman’s Rand-inspired, confused defense of IP, but this seems to me to be an odd negative appeal to authority.

Gordon is right to credit earlier libertarians such as Wendy McElroy, Murray Rothbard, and even Benjamin Tucker for their rejection of the basis of IP. I mention these, and other significant influence in my own thinking, including Tom Palmer, in notes 37-38 and accompanying text of my Against Intellectual Property (first published 2000). [Update: LeFevre was also good on this issue, as early as 1966: LeFevre on Intellectual Property and the “Ownership of Intangibles”.] I myself did not firmly come out against IP in print until about 1995 (Roderick Long, too, who is also great on IP2 —and, in fact, is debating Schulman on IP in New Hampshire at PorcFest 2011 June 20-26 2011). These and others are also linked on the C4SIF Resources page, including Rothbard’s key anti-IP contributions, Knowledge, True and False and Man, Economy, and State and Power and Market, Scholars Edition, pp. liv, 745-54, 1133-38, 1181-86.

Earlier libertarians, like Tucker, basically had the right approach (though Tucker was weak on land); but to have a sound, coherent approach to IP you must be informed by libertarian and really Austrian insights. (Spooner was out of his gourd on IP (I discuss him briefly in Against Intellectual Property, text at notes 32 and 48), as were Rand and Galambos; as was even Proudhon, who otherwise railed against “property” as “theft” [update: this may be incorrect, as noted now on the updated post linked above]). The austro-libertarian opposition to IP is already implied in Mises, Rothbard, and Hoppe’s political and economic writings. It is implied in Mises’s recognition that ideas and recipes are infinitely replicable, and in his understanding of the role of ideas and knowledge in action: that it is a guide to action, but not a scarce means of action. It is of course also present in both Rothbard’s rejection of state patent and copryight, and Hoppe’s views of property rights and scarcity. The anti-IP aspects of their ideas lay somewhat dormant or unappreciated until the full brunt of the IP system started to be felt with force in the mid-90s as a result of the rise of digital copying and information, the Internet, file sharing, and so on. Tucker, Mises, Rothbard, Konkin, Palmer, McElroy, et al.–they are true anti-IP pioneers. We should all be grateful to them for their intellectual leadership, which helps to clarify our understanding of yet another facet of the criminal state.

[Update: for more on McElroy's role in developing the anti-IP case, see my article “The Great IP Debate of 1983,” Mises Daily (July 18, 2011).]

[Mises cross-post]

  1. See Schulman: Kinsella is “the foremost enemy of property rights” ; Query for Schulman on Patents and Logorights; Kinsella v. Schulman on Logorights and IP. []
  2. Roderick Long: Bye-Bye for IPMy IP OdysseyRoderick Long Finally Realizes IP is Unjustified.  []
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