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Two Bad Arguments Against IP

I’ve noted before the dearth of good arguments for intellectual property (There are No Good Arguments for Intellectual Property). In a recent Facebook post, I mentioned two weak/confused arguments used against IP arguments and claims.

The first one is that copyright by contract would be illegitimate because if you sell something the buyer “completely owns” it. I.e., IP people often argue that copyright is legitimate because the publisher “could” make the buyer “sign a contract” not to copy or learn from or use or remember the book, and that would (could?) end up creating something like a copyright regime. They are completely wrong about this for a number of reasons (such contracts could not bind third parties, they are totally impracticable, etc.). But one argument against this (ridiculous) contract argument is that the buyer of the book “owns the whole book” and therefore the contract is “null and void” (or some such layman language that sounds like it came out of an income tax protestor nut’s reading of Black’s Law Dictionary). However, I think this argument is flawed. THere is nothing illegitimate about co-ownership or contractual arrangements. If I loan you my book or my car for particular uses, you do now own the entire book or car and some uses could be considered some type of trespass, property violation, or contract breach. It’s just that such contracts (a) are ridiculously uncommercial [would not be popular] and (b) would not create IP anyway, since IP is an in rem [property] right good against the world and contract is in personam–between the parties–and you can’t get in rem property rights from contract rights.

The second one is usually a response given to the charge that people who “copyright” their works yet who oppose copyright are hypocrites. There are many problems with latter argument. First, you don’t copyright things; it’s automatic; the holder of the copyright cannot be a hypocrite if he is not intentionally doing anything. SEcond, even if he were a hypocrite, that does not mean IP is justified. It’s really just a stupid argument. However, some IP opponents will say something like “well the reason I copyrighted it was to prevent someone else from taking my work and getting a copyright on it and stopping me from being able to publish my own work.” This is simply not the way copyright law works.

There is a grain of truth in this comment when it comes to patent and trademark, but not copyright. For patents, it is possible for A to invent X and keep it as a trade secret, and then for B to later invent X independently and then get a patent and sue A; that was always the risk of using trade secret instead of patent (that was in fact the intent of the patent system–to encourage people to disclose information that would otherwise be kept secret); yet this risk is lower now after the Obama America Invents Act, which provides a more general and robust prior user right. In any case, that has to do with patent not copyright.

And in the field of trademark if you do not enforce your trademark there is a chance it could become generic, as in Kleenex and Xerox becoming generic terms–but all this means is you would lose your trademark rights — your legal right to stop others–not your right to use the mark. In any case, that is about trademark not copyright. In the case of copyright, it is the author who obtains a copyright (again: automatically): and even if the first author could somehow make his work “public domain” [he can’t] by “failing to copyright it” [he can’t; as it’s automatic], that still would not permit a second person to “copyright” the work since the second person would not be its author.

So, there: I admit it: two slightly confused arguments often used by the anti-IP side.


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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.