One no-name nym-wielding Silas Barta (aka John Sharp, “Person,” Richard Harding [a juvenile sexual term, “hard dick”])1 has been a perennial gadfly and pest about IP, flitting in various Mises Blog comments razzing us IP abolitionists.
His argument is a literally stupid one (not surprising as “There are No Good Arguments for Intellectual Property”; see also “Absurd Arguments for IP”). It amounts to this: Some libertarians seem to think that there should be rights in electromagnetic (EM) spectra (see e.g. my post Why Airwaves (Electromagnetic Spectra) Are (Arguably) Property [Aug. 9, 2009]). And if you believe in property rights in EM spectra, then you have to believe in IP rights. After all, “IP (intellectual property) rights have the exact same form” as EM spectra rights. Et voilà!
Here’s his old post about this. He tangles with Bob Murphy in the quotes; interestingly, they later wrote a book together on Bitcoin: Murphy and Barta, Understanding Bitcoin: The Liberty Lover’s Guide to the Mechanics & Economics of Crypto-Currencies (2015) [available free online here, at b-ok dot cc then /book/2823918/9c514f ]. I love Bob and some of his Bitcoin stuff is provocative and enlightening (see his “Bitcoin and the Theory of Money” and “The Economics of Bitcoin“), but I can’t bear to read something co-authored by this idiot pest Barta/Person/Sharp/Harding, unless Murphy assures me he wrote basically all of it and for some reason just added Barta as a pity gesture or something. But since num-nuts’ name is listed first, I assume it was the opposite: gadfly Hard Dick wrote it and persuaded Bob to attach his name to it. Since Hard Dick is so bad on libertarian theory and on the argument for EM spectra (he doens’t even give an argument), I have no reason to think he has anything sensible to say about Bitcoin or libertarianism at all.
In his “article” pretending to “argue” for IP (he nowhere does), Barta says “Unlike some other people who shall remain nameless, I want to see where I’m wrong.” This is a lie. He doesn’t want to see where he’s wrong because he doens’t adduce a genuine argument for IP. He has some weird monomaniacal obsession with the EM spectrum issue [which is not settled among libertarians, unlike real property rights (yes!) and unlike IP rights (no!)]. His argument is not a real one; it’s an “if-then” one. “IF you believe in EM rights, THEN you should believe in IP rights.” Well. This is simply not a case for IP. And it’s wrong. You can believe in EM rights without believing in IP rights (see my post linked above). And if he’s right that EM implies IP, then EM would have to fall too, for the same reasons IP falls.
What Silas refuses to see is that, ultimately, IP rights are a taking of property rights, a redistribution of wealth in the form of a nonconsensual negative servitude (or easement), as I explain here: Intellectual Property Rights as Negative Servitudes. And to counter his predictable next silly argument: see my posts “The Non-Aggression Principle as a Limit on Action, Not on Property Rights,” “IP and Aggression as Limits on Property Rights: How They Differ,” “The “If you own something, that implies that you can sell it; if you sell something, that implies you must own it first” Fallacies.”
By the way, Hard Dick, I’ll be happy to discuss/debate this issue with you any time (this goes for any other defender of evil, socialist IP in the world).
In any case, here’s his little screed, saved here for posterity in case he modifies or deletes it out of embarrassment later.
[Silas Barta, July 29, 2008]
Am I going too far with that claim? Nope. I’ve argued it many times and haven’t seen any response that’s even remotely plausible. Here goes:
Most libertarians have no problem seeing why property rights in radio waves (i.e. the exclusive right to emit at a certain frequency) are justified.
Next, notice that IP (intellectual property) rights have the exact same form. Just as spectrum rights allow exactly one entity to form his property into a specific pattern (such that it emits at a specific frequency), IP lets exactly one entity form his property into a specific pattern. They are rights to configurations of objects rather than objects as such.
It is true (as many, many will remind me) that to broadcast at the same frequency as someone else “interferes” (!) with their “signal” (!). However, your judgment that there is “interference” is itself an arbitrary value judgment about the merit of someone’s intended use. In exactly the same way, copying someone’s ideas can interfere with their intended use.
Remember, the ether does not somehow “want” to carry information. It is simply one positive attribute humans have been able to wring out of it; if people merely loved to blast radio waves for the heck of it, the conflict wouldn’t arise. So the characterization as “interference” is solely a function of the uses people want to make of it.
Unless and until you can make a libertarian case why one desired use justifies exclusion rights for specific patterns and the other does not, the cases are perfectly parallel.
There, that’s all there is to it. Don’t let the length of this post confuse you; the entire case is self-contained between the asterisk lines. I want to now briefly review my history of making it.
If you look at this comment and the preceding, you see Stephan Kinsella make a seemingly innocuous but actually damning admission: that attempts to differentiate the cases of IP and radio waves reduce to (the very arbitrary decision of) what counts a “relevant use” for purposes of discerning property rights boundaries, a distinction mentioned nowhere in Kinsella’s widely quoted case against IP.
The argument persuaded some participants to reluctantly bite the bullet and admit that they couldn’t therefore support radio wave rights either. (Yikes!)
You’re rightly skeptical to wonder why I’m not quoting a peer-reviewed, published exposition of this argument, and indeed many have suggested I flesh it out and submit it to a (very ungrateful) libertarian journal. While probably a worthwhile pursuit, if I have spare time, it kind of misses the point of journals: to get results, whether they be new, useful scientific laws, or evidence in favor of propositions, or establishment that something is or is not possible. If the above remark by Stephan Kinsella is the best response he, the eminent opponent of IP, can marshal, we already have a result. Wanting it in a journal article is putting the cart before the horse.
I’ve probed other intellectuals on this and found similar inability to refute — I’m just posting the best response I’ve gotten.
Comments are greatly, greatly welcome. Unlike some other people who shall remain nameless, I want to see where I’m wrong.
 A name is a label intended to refer to a proper noun. An example of a name might be Stephan Kinsella or Bob Murphy.
- He once confirmed this to me: “I also post at these places. (Usual handle in parentheses.)
Asymmetric information, Megan McArdle’s blog (Person)
Marginal Revolution (Person)
Overcoming Bias (Silas)
Kip Esquire’s blog, A Stitch in Haste (Silas)
econlog.econlib.org (none, banned)
economiclogic.blogspot.com (johnsharp9)” [↩]