I love Lysander Spooner—a great early anarcho-libertarian. But he was bad on IP. He thought that an individual’s “right of property, in ideas, is intrinsically the same as, and stands on identically the same grounds with his right of property in material things … no distinction of principle, exists between the two cases.”1 The great Benjamin Tucker, in his 1887 tribute/eulogy to Spooner, included in the recently released Laissez Faire Books version of The Lysander Spooner Reader, had this to say about Spooner’s “The Law of Intellectual Property”: it was “the only positively silly work which ever came from Mr. Spooner’s pen.” He’s right.
My friend Wendy McElroy:
Tucker was extraordinarily critical of Spooner’s IP stand. I think the only person he castigated more for IP was Henry George who rejected patents and embraced copyright. Since Spooner was much more extreme on IP than George, I expect the entire difference in Tucker’s response was the general fondness he felt for Lysander and absolute contempt he had for Henry.
Of course, Objectivists would say the opposite: that Spooner was good on IP but bad on anarchy.
Update: Another strikingly bad Spooner quote: “So absolute is an author’s right of dominion over his ideas that he may forbid their being communicated even by human voice if he so pleases.”
Also, on Tucker’s confused argument against IP, see Molinari on IP.
- See The Origins of Libertarian IP Abolitionism (“Spooner was out of his gourd on IP (I discuss him briefly in Against Intellectual Property, text at notes 32 and 48)”); Copyright is Unconstitutional: Update (discussing how copyright causes censorship and thus infringes freedom of press and speech, which is protected by the First Amendment, as discussed in an article that cites Lysander Spooner “approvingly on the one issue Spooner was bad on—IP … see Hart’s post 15 Objections to Copyright from 1855“); see also Sheldon Richman’s Takedown of Patent and Copyright: Patent Nonsense; For Liberty, Life and Property….But Not The Ownership of Ideas; The Four Historical Phases of IP Abolitionism (“As detailed by Wendy McElroy in works such as Copyright and Patent in Benjamin Tucker’s periodical Liberty and Contra Copyright, Again, early libertarian and proto-libertarians and anarchists in the late 1800s had vigorous debates on this topic. Lysander Spooner in The Law of Intellectual Property; Or an Essay on the Right of Authors and Inventors to a Perpetual Property in their Ideas (1855) had argued for IP but Benjamin Tucker deviated from Spooner, his mentor, and rejected IP”); McElroy’s “Contra Copyright, Again”. [↩]