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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
  • Gustave de Molinari (1819–1912): bad on patent and copyright5
  • Herbert Spencer (1820–1903): bad on IP6
  • Auberon Herbert (1838–1906): unknown7
  • Henry George (1839–97): bad on copyright8
  • William Leggett (1801–39): very good, for his time, on both patent and copyright9
  • James Walker (Tak Kak) (1845–1904): excellent on both patent and copyright, like Tucker10
  • Eugen Böhm-Bawerk (1851–1914): expresses skepticism about both patent and copyright11
  • Benjamin Tucker (1854–1939): great on IP, but perhaps not completely for the right reasons12
  • Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973): skeptical, but mixed and confused on IP; seem to be anti-patent but pro-copyright13
  • Arnold Plant (1898–1978): skeptical of empirical case for patents14
  • Lionel Robbins (1898–1984): skeptical of empirical case for patents15
  • Leonard Read (1898–1983): appeared to be skeptical of ownership of ideas in general, i.e. anti-IP16
  • F.A. von Hayek (1899–1992): seemed to be leaning against IP, though not entirely clearly17
  • Fritz Machlup (1902–83): skeptical of the empirical case for patents18
  • Robert LeFevre (1911–86): expresses very good, early skepticism of the notion of IP or ownership of ideas19
  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.  Molinari on IP  []
  6.  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.” []
  7. 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] []
  8. Henry George on Intellectual Property and Copyright  []
  9.  William Leggett on Intellectual Property  []
  10. See William Leggett on Intellectual Property; and Wendy McElroy, For Liberty, Life and Property….But Not The Ownership of Ideas []
  11.  Böhm-Bawerk on Patent and Copyright  []
  12.  Molinari on IP  []
  13.  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” []
  14. The Economic Theory Concerning Patents for Inventions,”Economica, New Series, 1, no. 1 (Feb., 1934) []
  15.  Lionel Robbins on the Patent Monopoly  []
  16.  Leonard Read on Copyright and the Role of Ideas  []
  17. 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  []
  18. 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 []
  19.  LeFevre on Intellectual Property and the “Ownership of Intangibles”  []
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To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to C4SIF. This work is published from: United States. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.