A friend wrote me recently to ask my thoughts about Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead—in particular about Roark’s implicit invocation of intellectual property when he defends himself in the courtroom scene for his actions in dynamiting Cortlandt Homes. As a refresher: Roark had made a side-deal with Peter Keating to be Keating’s ghost-architect, since Keating had little talent: Roark would provide the designs to Keating; Keating would pass them off as his own to build this Cortlandt Homes projects. During Keating’s later negotiations with the developer, he agreed to modify the designs, even though he had promised Roark he would not do this. Roark was unhappy with the way the builder-owner “ruined” “his” designs, so he destroyed the entire complex in an act of sabotage, with dynamite. In his defense, he argued that he was entitled to do this since he “owned” “his” architectural designs. Some cockamamie theory like this. My friend thought this suggested that ideas can be owned, and that you could enforce this in a court situation without the involvement of state legislation. He also said that when he writes something on his own initiative—not copying it—he considers it “mine” unless he relinquishes rights to it, just as with a table or home he may have built.
My responses, lightly edited, are below.
I agree, and this is one reason I have become more negative about The Fountainhead. I recently re-read Atlas and enjoyed it, but do not think I would ever re-read The Fountainhead. Roark basically demolishes someone else’s property, on IP grounds, even though his contract claim is tenuous. It’s almost an example of IP terrorism. To my mind, The Fountainhead demonstrates what is wrong with the IP idea.
Atlas has a few aspects of this—the patent on Rearden Metal being “expropriated” by the state (even though the state granted the patent), and the bizarre situation of Dagny and Rearden trying to reverse engineer Galt’s Motor prototype, without his consent, which would seem to violate IP rights—but it is overall far superior; IP does not dominate Atlas, but it is a main aspect of Fountainhead. At this point I cannot say I like or would recommend The Fountainhead. It has the horrible IP terrorism motif, and the main character, besides being odd and quasi-raping Dominique (yes, yes, I know it was “by engraved invitation”; but still), he doesn’t want to do what his clients pay him to do. Hunh?
So, yes, Fountainhead exemplifies Rand’s illiberal IP views quite nicely, by having Roark dynamite Cortlandt Homes. It shows that IP is ultimately incompatible with property rights and free markets.
I also disagree that “an architect’s ownership of his designs” can be settled without states and legislation, merely with “a background of courts where disputes can be adjudicated”. You might as well say that the right to a job or to not be discriminated against can be settled in the courts instead of with the Civil Rights Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act. An architect literally cannot own his “designs.” If you make information public, others learn from it, imitate it, incorporate that knowledge into their own plans and knowledge. They might even compete with you; I remember when competition was not a bad word in libertarian circles. The architect, in enforcing his so-called ideal rights, always really seeks to use real, physical force, against real, physical property: e.g. he wants to use physical force to take some money away from the defendant or, as Roark did, to use physical explosives to physically demolish the physical resources of the owners of Cortlandt homes. It’s always a question of who owns the rivalrous resource/scarce means in question. The IP issue is trotted out as a justification for the state or legal system transferring property rights in already-owned property from the current owner, to the IP holder. But this just means that IP is a means of taking or redistributing existing property rights. That’s how I see it, at least. I find it hard to there is any libertarian justification for destroying Cortlandt, except maybe an anarchist one (since it was a government project), which the IP advocates usually also reject.
And as should be clear by now: if I take scarce resources that I own and use information at my disposal to rearrange these materials into a more useful configuration, then I “consider” the rearranged resource to be “mine” unless I relinquish rights to it. As Rand wrote:
The power to rearrange the combinations of natural elements is the only creative power man possesses. It is an enormous and glorious power—and it is the only meaning of the concept “creative.” “Creation”does not (and metaphysically cannot) mean the power to bring something into existence out of nothing. “Creation” means the power to bring into existence an arrangement (or combination or integration) of natural elements that had not existed before.
So if I own some raw material because I homesteaded it or purchased it by contract from a previous owner, I am free to rearrange it into a new configuration that might be more useful or valuable to me, or to a customer. When I act on my resources, and employ causal means to do so, I have to consult knowledge I have about reality–causal laws, etc. That knowledge guides my choices, and the better it is, the more creative or valuable may be the end product of my action. But I own the end result because I already owned the factors. The end result is more valuable than before because of my knowledge but that does not mean I own the added-value, as some separate thing.
If you say you “consider” your “writing” to be “yours,” this can only mean that you are asserting a right to use force to stop me from using my own body and my own resources (paper, ink etc.) in certain ways. I cannot see how this cannot but lead to conflict between those who advocate such a theory, and those who essentially believe in a libertarian-Lockean grounding of property rights in scarce resources. The guy who says “I own that novel” is really seeking to stop me, with force, from using my owned scarce resources as I see fit. That is obviously a huge conflict. The libertarian answer, to the question: who owns that resource (e.g. that printing press) is: the owner. Not the outsider/novelist.
For another post mentioning the “IP terrorism” in The Fountainhead, see my post Attempted Objectivist attack on Christianity backfires; and Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged, Part II: Confused on Copyright and Patent; Copyright and the Eiffel Tower.