See the 2008 post below, from Mike Masnick. It concerns Nobel Prize winning physicist Robert B. Laughlin, author of The Crime of Reason and the Closing of the Scientific Mind. As can be seen in this Cato podcast, Intellectual Property Versus Reason, and in the notes for this related Cato book forum,
Though we may feel inundated with information today, Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin argues that intellectual property laws and government security demands are increasingly restricting access to the most useful information. Government rules and businesses’ legal pressures to sequester information threaten the development of new knowledge, he says. The rights of free people to investigate their world are threatened. Laughlin’s fresh perspective and light, sometimes whimsical, bent do not mask the central warning of his readable book: that we risk bequeathing our heirs a world where knowledge is criminalized and our intellectual tradition of unfettered inquiry is lost.
(h/t Tibor Machan)
I haven’t read the book yet but his ideas sound intriguing. I also discuss how IP impedes the activity of learning in various articles, e.g. “Intellectual Freedom and Learning Versus Patent and Copyright.” And see also the Max Planck Society statement on copyright law and science, which voices some concerns similar to those of Dr. Laughlin.
Here’s Masnick’s 2008 post:
from the and-another-one dept
Over the last year or so, there have been a bunch of excellent books that have come out highlighting many of the issues we talk about here on a regular basis. The latest may be The Crime of Reason and the Closing of the Scientific Mind, written by Nobel Prize winning physicist, Robert B. Laughlin. I became aware of the book thanks to the fact that he’ll be speaking at the Cato Institute this week about the book, for those of you in the Washington, DC area.
It’s funny, because when we point to all the economic research on intellectual property and innovation, we’ve been told that economists know nothing. In fact, one critic of our site has claimed that even Nobel Prize winning economists aren’t worth paying attention to — and the only Nobel Prize winners who matter are those in the hard sciences. So, I’m sure those critics will be interested in the conclusions of Laughlin, who notes that the strengthening of intellectual property laws has harmed the ability to share knowledge and to innovate. He’s quite worried about how it’s impacting research and development.
Newly aggressive patent practices are increasingly violating a principle that has been with us since Roman times and is built into our societies at many levels, including our religions: the laws of man flow from the laws of nature and are subservient to them. Patenting nature is transparently immoral. So is patenting reason, since reason and nature are one and the same. Thus, the current problem with patent law is more serious than the bellyaching of a few jaded engineers. It’s a crisis of legitimacy.
So, now we can add a Nobel Prize winning physicist to the list of critics of the patent system, along with a few Nobel Prize winning economists.
Update: I finished listening to the Cato podcast. I think Laughlin, while thoughtful and smart, is basically confused. He is not really against IP. Rather, he seems to accept the mainstream notion that property rights are important if you want prosperity; that if you understand economics, you see that we need IP. The cost is that this will impinge on artistic, scientific, and intellectual freedom. And that if we want security, other restrictions on the spread and use of information are necessary as well. He thinks there is a “tension” between intellectual freedom and creativity, on the one hand, and prosperity and economics and property rights on the other; that we need a “careful balance.” I.e. he accepts the logic of IP, but then he sees intuitively it causes problems, so like most people he then tries to blunt its sharp edges. Instead of realizing that the problem is IP, he wants to have it, but then limit and regulate and blunt it when it seems to harmful.
He also thinks that people who are for property rights (a) will be for IP, and (b) don’t undersatnd the creative, artistic, scientific side; and that people who are anti-IP don’t understand “economics.” This is just wrong. You can be opposed to IP because you understand economics, because you favor prosperity, because you appreciate the importance of intellectual freedom and the learning. Laughlin seems to have succumbed to scientism, like many smart engineers and scientists who think they can just sweep social and political reasoning aside and reinvent the wheel using brute force. So while he has some good insights into how IP can harm learning, science, intellectual freedom, he does not appear to have a principled or sound political-economic understanding of the right solution: it’s a radical, principled opposition to IP, not an exhortation to do more careful “balancing.”
As I listened to the 16-minute podcast, I had a succession of impressions. For the first 6 or so minutes, I could not tell whether Laughlin was pro- or anti-IP. I know a bit about IP but I was not even sure what he was talking about much of the time. Oh, Laughlin is articulate enough–he speaks slowly, ponderously, and often pauses dramatically, as if struggling to pick just the right Deep Thoughts in response to Serious Questions–and even pronounces a French word or two properly. But soon it becomes obvious that his views on IP are just a mess, and he is, indeed, infected by the scientistic virus that physicists are susceptible to. It soon become clear that Laughlin believes there is a tension between economic prosperity (which requires IP) and “human rights” (in particular the “right to learn,” which IP impinges on). At first he seems to be very concerned that human rights will “give way” to IP and economic prosperity–even pessimistic about this–even while he himself seems to grant that we ought to be concerned about prosperity–and, thus, IP. So he’s pessimistic that IP is infringing the human right to learn, yet he not only thinks nothing can or will be done to stop this–after all, we’ve now entered the information age, where IP rights are even more important to economic prosperity–he even seems to think that we should not abolish IP. We need to “supply the data” to “the legislature” (Congress), and achieve the right “balance”, even though he admits he doesn’t know what the right solution even is–it’s “above my pay grade.” Naturally, then, he doesn’t blame the Congresscritters for how they have voted to date on IP issues, whether pro or con; their efforts are sincere and based on the best data possible. One wonders why he is depressed, or why he even wrote a book. I guess Nobel laureates can sell just about anything they slap their name on, which is reason enough.
I can’t bring myself to read his book now, but from this interview it seems apparent that he holds a number of erroneous views: that both the state and the democratic process are legitimate, and that legislation is the right way to make law; that IP is pro-property rights; that IP is necessary for and promotes prosperity; that there is a conflict between human rights and economic rights; not to mention his implicit scientism. In his confused attempt to weigh in on legal and economic and policy issues he reminded me a bit of physicist Fritjof Capra’s New Agey The Tao of Physics (hence the title of this post).
A few other things to note: from the Cato description of his book:
“Though we may feel inundated with information today, Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin argues that intellectual property laws and government security demands are increasingly restricting access to the most useful information. Government rules and businesses’ legal pressures to sequester information threaten the development of new knowledge, he says. The rights of free people to investigate their world are threatened. Laughlin’s fresh perspective and light, sometimes whimsical, bent do not mask the central warning of his readable book: that we risk bequeathing our heirs a world where knowledge is criminalized and our intellectual tradition of unfettered inquiry is lost.”
So he sees IP as “criminalizing” knowledge … yet is not completely opposed to it. So we need only a reasonable degree of criminalization of knowledge. I guess Laughlin chooses IP over reason… sometimes.
Publishers Weekly (from the Amazon.com listing) identifies some of the weaknesses in Laughlin’s book:
“The provocative premise of this short book is that even as we appear to be awash in information, governments and industry are restricting access to knowledge by broadening the concept of intellectual property to include things as diverse as gene sequences and sales techniques. According to Laughlin, the right to learn is now aggressively opposed by intellectual property advocates, who want ideas elevated to the status of land, cars, and other physical assets so the their unauthorized acquisition can be prosecuted as theft. With examples drawn from nuclear physics, biotechnology and patent law, Laughlin, a Nobel laureate in physics, paints a troubling picture of a society in which the only information that is truly valuable in dollars and cents is controlled by a small number of individuals. But while Laughlin poses urgent questions, he provides neither in-depth analysis nor potential solutions. Many intriguing arguments–for example, that electronic technologies such as the Internet, which inundate us with useless information, are not instruments of knowledge dissemination at all but agencies of knowledge destruction–are offered but none are usefully explored.
So Laughlin views IP as “restricting access to knowledge”–if he instead viewed IP as an infringement of property rights, he would have a harder time making the mistake of thinking IP is on the side of economic prosperity and property rights. The “right to learn,” whatever that is, is not any primary kind of right, and would seem to be jeopardized by government education and propaganda more than by patent and copyright. Again, IP undercuts and infringes property rights, and harms innovation (see here, here, here, here)–if he realized this, he would not set up the false alternative of prosperity versus human rights. And the idea that IP is more important in the information age is also flawed.