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Benjamin Tucker and the Great Nineteenth Century IP Debates in Liberty Magazine

Wendy McElroy has previously written about a fascinating debate on intellectual property among various anarchists in the pages of Benjamin R. Tucker’s periodical Liberty. She provides and excellent discussion of the debate in her article “Copyright and Patent in Benjamin Tucker’s Periodical,” Mises Daily (July 28, 2010), based on a chapter in Wendy McElroy, The Debates of Liberty: An Overview of Individualist Anarchism, 1881–1908 (2002), which also contains detailed endnotes and references.

As McElroy explains,

Intellectual property — as embodied in copyright and patent — was the subject of intense debate within Liberty. Benjamin Tucker flatly rejected the idea that legal copyright was compatible with anarchism. The strength of Tucker’s opposition to patents may be judged from his essay “State Socialism and Anarchism: How Far They Agree, and Wherein They Differ [1899].

In that essay, Tucker condemned four monopolies:

the money monopoly, the land monopoly, the tariff monopoly, and the patent monopoly.

… the patent monopoly, which consists in protecting inventors and authors against competition for a period long enough to enable them to extort from the people a reward enormously in excess of the labor measure of their services,—in other words, in giving certain people a right of property for a term of years in laws and facts of nature, and the power to exact tribute from others for the use of this natural wealth, which should be open to all. The abolition of this monopoly would fill its beneficiaries with a wholesome fear of competition which would cause them to be satisfied with pay for their services equal to that which other laborers get for theirs, and to secure it by placing their products and works on the market at the outset at prices so low that their lines of business would be no more tempting to competitors than any other lines.

The debate had previously raged in the pages of Benjamin Tucker’s anarchist periodical Liberty, in various issues from 1888 to 1891. Benjamin Tucker (the Editor of Liberty), along with Tak Kak (James Walker) and J. William Lloyd, argued against intellectual property (and against the insane pro-IP views of Lysander Spooner, The Law of Intellectual Property (1855), whom they all admired and whom had recently passed in 1887). Writing in favor of IP were Victor Yarros (the Associate Editor of Liberty), Wordsworth Donisthorpe, A.H. Simpson, John Beverley Robinson, and Hugo Bilgram. The debate is well worth reading, as is McElroy’s account of it.1

The Libertarian Labyrinth provides links to PDF files of all issues: Benjamin R. Tucker’s “Liberty” (1881-1908). I provide below links to the IP-related issues. I have also compiled these issues into a single file (pdf).

Benjamin R. Tucker’s “Liberty” (1881-1908): IP-related Issues

  • Vol. 5, No. 14 — 118 — February 11, 1888: 1 (Tucker, “On Picket Duty”)
  • Vol. 5, No. 23 — 127 — June 23, 1888: 7 (Kak, “As Usual, Protection Only For the Rich”)
  • Vol. 5, No. 24 — 128 — July 7, 1888: 4 (Tucker, “Ergo and Presto!”)
  • Vol. 7, No. 18 — 174 — December 27, 1890: 4 (Yarros, “More on Copyright”); 4 (Tucker, commentary on Yarros)
  • Vol. 7, No. 19 — 175 — January 10, 1891: 5 (Bilgram, “The Reward of Authors”)
  • Vol. 7, No. 20 — 176 — January 24, 1891: 5 (Yarros, “The ‘General Principle’ and Copyright”); 5-6 (Tucker, commentary on Yarros, “The ‘General Principle’ and Copyright”); 6 (Simpson, “Property in Ideas”); 6 (Tucker, commentary on Simpson, “Property in Ideas”); 7 (Donisthorpe, “Copyright”); 7 (Tucker, commentary on Donisthorpe)
  • Vol. 7, No. 21 — 177 — February 7, 1891: 5 (Tucker, “Property in Ideas and Equal Liberty”); 6 (Lloyd, “Copyright”)
  • Vol. 7, No. 22 — 178 — February 21, 1891: 4 (Yarros, “The Right to Authorship”); 5 (Tucker, commentary on Yarros)
  • Vol. 7, No. 23 — 179 — March 7, 1891
  • Vol. 7, No. 24 — 180 — March 21, 1891: 4 (Kak, “Copyright—III); 2 (Simpson, “Spooner on Property in Ideas”)
  • Vol. 7, No. 26 — 182 — April 18, 1891: 2 (Yarros: “Property and Equal Liberty”); 3 (Labadie, “Cranky Notions”); 5 (Tucker?, “The Knot-Hole in the Fence”);
  • Vol. 8, No. 1 — 183 — May 2, 1891: 4 (Tucker, commentary on Yarros, “The Latest Excuse for Government”)
  • Vol. 8, No. 2 — 184 — May 16, 1891: 4 (Yarros, “Land and Ideas as Property”); 5 (Robinson, “A New Argument Against Copyright”)
  • Vol. 8, No. 3 — 185 — May 30, 1891 (Tucker declared debate over? Wendy says but she references May 29 issue?); 3 (Yarros, “Swords, Pokers, Logic, and Anarchism”); 3 (Kak, “Copyright—IV”); 4 (Tucker, “An Uncivil Answer to a Sneer”)
  • Vol. 8, No. 4 — 186 — June 13, 1891: 5 (Lloyd, “Free Copyright and the Devil’s Advocate”)

There were also short notes about IP in two more issues, which I exclude from the omnibus pdf file above:

  • Vol. 8, No. 5 — 187 — June 27, 1891
  • Vol. 8, No. 6 — 188 — July 11, 1891

(For some weaknesses in Tucker’s critique of IP, see my comments in Molinari (and Tucker, and Mutualists) on IP.)

  1. See James L. Walker (Tak Kak), “The Question of Copyright” (1891) []
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