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Classical Liberals and Anarchists on Intellectual Property

I’ve discussed before the IP stances of various older libertarians, classical liberal, and anarchist thinkers on IP (see The Four Historical Phases of IP AbolitionismThe Origins of Libertarian IP AbolitionismThe Death Throes of Pro-IP Libertarianism). I keep trying to add to this list. I’ll supplement this post from time to time, but here is some of what I’ve collected.1 I’m omitting more recent libertarians such as Rand and Galambos. These are sorted chronologically (by date of birth). Good guys in blue (lighter blue for the ones that are semi-good). Bad in red.

  • Frédéric Bastiat (1801–50): a friend tells me he is good on patents (against them) but bad on copyright, though I haven’t verified this yet myself2
  • Lysander Spooner (1808–87): horrible on IP, just about the worst, next to Galambos, Rand, and Schulman3
  • Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65): possibly bad on IP (claim disputed)4
  • JK Ingalls (1816–98): Seems to be almost identical to Tucker: good on IP, but for confused reasons, including hostility to the “land monopoly”5
  • Gustave de Molinari (1819–1912): bad on patent and copyright6
  • Herbert Spencer (1820–1903): bad on IP7
  • Auberon Herbert (1838–1906): unknown8
  • Henry George (1839–97): bad on copyright9
  • William Leggett (1801–39): very good, for his time, on both patent and copyright10
  • James Walker (Tak Kak) (1845–1904): excellent on both patent and copyright, like Tucker11
  • Eugen Böhm-Bawerk (1851–1914): expresses skepticism about both patent and copyright12
  • Benjamin Tucker (1854–1939): great on IP, but perhaps not completely for the right reasons13
  • Albert Jay Nock (1870–1945): possibly skeptical of patents14
  • Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973): skeptical, but mixed and confused on IP; seem to be anti-patent but pro-copyright15
  • Arnold Plant (1898–1978): skeptical of empirical case for patents16
  • Lionel Robbins (1898–1984): skeptical of empirical case for patents17
  • Leonard Read (1898–1983): appeared to be skeptical of ownership of ideas in general, i.e. anti-IP18
  • F.A. von Hayek (1899–1992): seemed to be leaning against IP, though not entirely clearly19
  • Fritz Machlup (1902–83): skeptical of the empirical case for patents20
  • Robert LeFevre (1911–86): expresses very good, early skepticism of the notion of IP or ownership of ideas21

More recent thinkers (not a comprehensive list; for more on modern libertarian views on IP see The Four Historical Phases of IP AbolitionismThe Origins of Libertarian IP Abolitionism:

  • Galambos: bad (the worst): total nutjob on IP
  • Rothbard: decent on patent; confused on copyright
  • F.A. “Baldy” Harper: indications are he was or would have been bad on IP; infected by the Lockean “creationism” virus22
  • Ayn Rand: bad (central plot point of The Fountainhead: IP terrorism)
  • Wendy McElroy: good (the first to get it basically right from a libertarian perspective)
  • Sam Konkin: good
  • Roderick Long: good (early radical libertarian opponent of IP)
  • Kinsella: good
  • J. Neil Schulman: bad
  • L. Neil Smith: bad
  • Tom Palmer: good (at least originally)
  • Hans-Hermann Hoppe: good
  • Tibor Machan: confused and bad on IP
  • Alex Tabarrok: confused/bad
  • Tyler Cowen: bad
  • Richard Epstein: bad
  • Paul Cwik: bad
  • Mary Ruwart: good: indicates here she is generally against IP (previously, position a bit unclear:  here she doesn’t clearly condemn defamation law, which is a type of IP [discussed further at this facebook post]
  1. See also my post Pro-IP “Anarchists” and anti-IP Patent Attorneys. []
  2. see Economic Harmonies, ch. X, and clearer mentions in “Propriété et Spoliation“. Re Bastiat being in favor of indefinite copyright, see “Discours au cercle de la librairie” []
  3. Tucker on Spooner’s One Flaw  []
  4.  Proudhon: For Intellectual Monopoly  []
  5. See his Social Wealth [1885], pp. 85–86: “The idea of a natural exclusive right in invention or in the publishing of books is absurd. If there is one, why our patent and copyright laws? Why not defend the right at common law or by general consent? Because a man utters a new word, or coins a new phrase, is that his property which no one may repeat? If we may not be prevented from reiterating it, why from rewriting it or reprinting it? Because a man builds a house to shelter himself and family, shall all mankind be compelled to dwell in caves to the end of time? or pay him and his descendants a royalty or kingly tribute? Doubtless,  society will feel under obligation to one who has invented a useful thing or written an instructive or entertaining book. And the man who has conceived or perfected either of these has the power of property over it, while he keeps it private or secret, and will usually find means to secure an advantage from it before making it public property, as Daguerre did with his beautiful invention. Society, too, may take lawful methods of awarding services of that kind; but to create a monopoly is not one of them. For books and inventions a premium might be allowed for a given time; but not to interfere with the freedom of manufacture and sale by all who would respect the right.” See also Wikipedia: “He was an associate of Benjamin Tucker and the “Boston anarchists.” He believed that government protection of idle land was the foundational source of all limitations on individual liberty.” []
  6.  Molinari on IP  []
  7.  According to Roderick Long, finding evidence in his Autobiography. See also Spencer’s Social Statics, ch. XI, § 3: “As already remarked, it is a common notion, and one more especially pervading the operative classes, that the exclusive use by its discoverer of any new or improved mode of production, is a species of monopoly, in the sense in which that word is conventionally used. To let a man have the entire benefit accruing from the employment of some more efficient machine, [139] or better process invented by him; and to allow no other person to adopt and apply for his own advantage the same plan, they hold to be an injustice. Nor are there wanting philanthropic and even thinking men, who consider that the valuable ideas originated by individuals—ideas which may be of great national advantage—should be taken out of private hands and thrown open to the public at large. …. —And pray, gentlemen,—an inventor might fairly reply,—why may not I make the same proposal respecting your goods and chattels, your clothing, your houses, your railway shares, and your money in the funds? If you are right in the interpretation you give to the term ‘monopoly,’ I do not see why that term should not be applied to the coats upon your backs and the provisions on your dinner tables.” []
  8. Jeff Tucker assures me that Herbert was good on IP but I can find nothing in The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays [1885] definitive, though he has a bit of pro-IP-ish “libertarian creationism” in his comment “We claim that the individual is not only the one true owner of his faculties, but also of his property, because property is directly or indirectly the product of faculties, is inseparable from faculties, and therefore must rest on the same moral basis, and fall under the same moral law, as faculties. Personal ownership of our own selves and of our own faculties, necessarily includes personal ownership of property. As property is created by faculties, it would be idle, it would be a mere illusion, to speak of an individual as owner of his own faculties, and at same time to withhold from him the fullest and most perfect rights over his property, if such property has been rightfully acquired” [emphasis added] []
  9. Henry George on Intellectual Property and Copyright  []
  10.  William Leggett on Intellectual Property  []
  11. See William Leggett on Intellectual Property; and Wendy McElroy, For Liberty, Life and Property….But Not The Ownership of Ideas []
  12.  Böhm-Bawerk on Patent and Copyright  []
  13.  Molinari on IP  []
  14. According to a friend, “In his biography of Jefferson, he claims that Jefferson was against patents, and his phrasing makes it appear that he was against them, too. In his narrative about Jefferson’s views, he refers to them as monopolies.” []
  15.  Human Action 3rd rev. ed. Chicago: Henry Regnery (1966), chap. 23, section 6, pp. 661–62; see also pp. 128, 364; see also Kinsella, “Mises on Intellectual Property” []
  16. The Economic Theory Concerning Patents for Inventions,”Economica, New Series, 1, no. 1 (Feb., 1934) []
  17.  Lionel Robbins on the Patent Monopoly  []
  18.  Leonard Read on Copyright and the Role of Ideas  []
  19. see Hayek’s Views on Intellectual Property; also Tucker, “Misesian vs. Marxian vs. IP Views of Innovation“; Tucker, “Hayek on Patents and Copyrights“; Salerno, Hayek Contra Copyright Laws  []
  20. U.S. Senate Subcommittee On Patents, Trademarks & Copyrights, An Economic Review of the Patent System, 85th Cong., 2nd Session, 1958, Study No. 15 (text excerpt) [“Report to the US congress from 1958, which also extensively narrates the history of the patent movement and of earlier economic research on this subject. Machlup, a renowned American economist of Austrian origin, is the first author of a large treatise on knowledge economics and other treatises which belong to the teaching repertoire of economics departments in universities. His report cites a wealth of historical and economic evidence to refute most of the reasoning used by lawyers to legitimate the patent system.”]; Fritz Machlup & Edith Penrose, “The Patent Controversy in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Economic History 10 (1950), p. 1 []
  21.  LeFevre on Intellectual Property and the “Ownership of Intangibles”  []
  22. KOL 037 | Locke’s Big Mistake: How the Labor Theory of Property Ruined Political Theory; “The Intellectual Property Quagmire, or, The Perils of Libertarian Creationism” (Powerpoint; PDF version), Austrian Scholars Conference 2008Rothbard Memorial Lecture (audio; video; Google Video version); Locke on IP; Mises, Rothbard, and Rand on Creation, Production, and “Rearranging”; Libertarian Creationism; Rand on IP, Owning “Values”, and “Rearrangement Rights”; Locke, Smith, Marx and the Labor Theory of Value.  []
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