My IP Odyssey

by Stephan Kinsella on May 30, 2013

I became libertarian in 1982, as a junior in high school, after reading Ayn Rand’s novels and nonfiction books.

A few years later I was in law school and a nascent anarchist and Rothbardian, having by this time rejected Rand’s attacks on libertarianism and anarchism. And I had always had qualms about her pro-IP arguments.1

And then in 1992 I started practicing law and soon started specializing in intellectual property and patent law. Hey, that’s where the money was. At the same time, I was starting to publish on various libertarian legal theory issues, such as rights theory. Naturally, given my chosen specialty and my interest in libertarian theory, my interest turned to the IP issue. I had tried for years to find some way to justify patent and copyright law, but by the time I finally started practicing and had passed the patent bar (1994), I had pretty much become a total IP skeptic. I started publishing articles critical of IP around that time, such as my Letter on Intellectual Property Rights, IOS Journal 5, no. 2 (June 1995), pp. 12-13,2 and my “Is Intellectual Property Legitimate?Federalist Society IP Practice Group Newsletter (Winter 2000),3 and then In Defense of Napster and Against the Second Homesteading Rule, LewRockwell.com (September 4, 2000) and “Against Intellectual Property,” Journal of Libertarian Studies (Spring 2001), which won the Mises Institute’s Alford Prize.4

At first I was leery of admitting, as a “respectable” big-firm and IP lawyer, my growing libertarian and anti-IP radicalism. I was worried clients or bosses or partners would not like it.But I gradually realized: none of them care. They just want lawyers who are competent; they don’t care about your personal politics. You want your airplane pilot and your brain surgeon to be competent, not of the same political persuasion as you. So gradually I shed my initial reluctance to reveal my views. In fact I still get contacted by people who want me to help them with patent law or other IP law issues—they don’t care that I hate patents and want the law changed; they seem to assume that I must know my stuff if I am so passionate about it. Odd (but rational, I think).

As I have often mentioned, IP was never my big interest, either as a lawyer or libertarian theorist. As a lawyer, I enjoyed other types of law more—oil and gas law, international law, even family law (wills, adoptions, name changes, etc.)—but went into IP because in the mid-90s as a young electrical engineer-background lawyer, there was a lot of demand. Plus, IP is more of a national law practice, which provides more mobility; you are not locked into one state’s legal system. And in terms of libertarian theory, I focused on IP only because it bugged me and I felt I had to figure that issue out and get it out of the way; but I was always more interested in other topics, like philosophy in general, epistemology, rights theory, contract theory, aspects of property theory, Austrian economics, and the like. But of course, as one of the few libertarians with a deep knowledge of IP law, over the years, since 2005 or so, when I am asked to give a speech or interview or contribute an article, the most requested topic is IP.

I initially felt a tug of annoyance at this pigeon-holing, but finally got over it, for a couple reasons. First, I’ve become convinced that IP is not a marginal issue; that is is one of the top 5 or 6 evils the state foists on us, and crucially important to get this right and to help libertarians, at least, to understand this.5 Second, I’ve discovered that sorting all this out requires one to carefully think about and refine one’s thought on a host of related issues, from the nature and purpose of property rights to issues like fraud, defamation, anarchy vs. minarchy, legislation vs. common law, and contract theory.

So, I guess the IP issue is here to stay—until we can abolish it, that is.

  1. Some of this is detailed in “How I Became A Libertarian,” December 18, 2002, LewRockwell.com, published as “Being a Libertarian” in I Chose Liberty: Autobiographies of Contemporary Libertarians. Some people reading this may also be interested in my posts New Publisher, Co-Editor for my Legal Treatise, and how I got started with legal publishing and Advice for Prospective Libertarian Law Students.  []
  2. including: David Kelley, “Response to Kinsella,” IOS Journal 5, no. 2 (June 1995), p. 13; and Murray I. Franck, “Intellectual and Personality Property,” IOS Journal 5, no. 3 September 1995, p. 7 []
  3. This article was based on a version previously published in the Pennsylvania Bar Association Intellectual Property Newsletter 1 (Winter 1998): 3, a newsletter I founded in 1997 []
  4. See also Roderick Long Finally Realizes IP is Unjustified. []
  5.  “Where does IP Rank Among the Worst State Laws?” []
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