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Henry George on Intellectual Property and Copyright

Henry George (1839–97): bad on property and rights (e.g. his nutty single-tax ideas, ably dissected by Rothbard here); and bad on IP too. He makes an artificial (and unsustainable) distinction between patent and copyright (like many political thinkers who pontificate on IP, he doesn’t seem to really understand the legal systems of patent and copyright that he feels compelled to weigh in on); he bases his critique of patent on ridiculous notions about the role of labor in the acquisition of property rights (like many thinkers, he relies on a labor theory of property, a cousin of the pernicious labor theory of value); and his defense of copyright is horrific and illiberal, as Benjamin Tucker (who also disagreed with Spooner’s similar views)1 noted.

For more, see: Classical Liberals and Anarchists on Intellectual Property.

From Wendy McElroy: “Copyright and Patent in Benjamin Tucker’s Periodical

The Debate Debuts: The Question of Patent

In the July 7, 1888, issue of Liberty, Tucker critiqued an article by Henry George that had appeared in the June 23 issue of the Standard. George claimed that ownership came from production, not discovery. This led him to reject patents, describing them as ideas that manipulated the laws of nature through machinery. He wrote, “No man can justly claim ownership in natural laws, nor in any of the potentialities which nature hold for it.” To those who protested that only the machine, not the natural law, was being claimed as property, George replied that the principles upon which the machines operated were intrinsic to nature. For example, a windmill was nothing more than an expression of how the force of wind pushing against a surface could produce power. Thus, every patent reduced to an ownership claim over an expression of nature.

George distinguished between two forms of labor that went into producing an invention. The first form was the mental labor of working out the operating principles of the machine — this was the labor of discovery. But since the principles existed in nature — e.g., how X amps of electricity reacts to Y ohms of resistance — they were available for discovery by anyone and could not be claimed by one man. The second form of labor was the actual construction of a specific machine from raw materials — this was the labor of production. Thus, the specific machine a man produced, such as a wheelbarrow, could be claimed as his property but he could not prevent another man from producing his own wheelbarrow.

George then proceeded to distinguish between patents and copyright, and to argue that the latter was a defensible form of intellectual property. That is, he claimed that the labor of production expended on how to say something gave a man an ownership right to that arrangement of words and not merely to one specific instance of the arrangement.

In a response that bordered on an ad hominem attack, Tucker called George “one of the most dangerous men among all of those now posing as public teachers.” It was George’s defense of copyright that elicited Tucker’s scorn. Henceforth, the topic of intellectual property would have two well-defined threads in which patent and copyright were addressed as separate issues.

Concerning patents, Tucker agreed that the act of discovery gave a man no more right to a principle, such as electricity, than simply stepping upon a continent gave him a right to that landmass. Only the labor of production endowed ownership. And, since “the work of production is required afresh in the case of each particular thing,” no particular thing can be claimed by anyone other than the individual who manufactured it.

Tucker then raised controversy by contending that the act of discovering the principle anew was not even required for someone to claim equal ownership to a specific machine for the simple reason that such independent invention might not be possible. For example, Tucker disputed whether any man living in civilization had the ability to independently invent the steam engine; if a man had seen this machine, he was thereby deprived of the ability to conceive it anew. That is, a man who had seen a steam engine could not be totally original in inventing one even if he honestly attempted to be so. “This being the case,” concluded Tucker, “a patent given to him [the inventor] puts the entire world at his mercy.”

  1. See Tucker on Spooner’s One Flaw. Also, on Tucker’s confused argument against IP, see Molinari on IP. []
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