Greg Morin: Ideas Are Not Property, On Dismantling IP

The following was published on the Libertarian Party of Georgia’s website. Greg Morin is a member of the Athens, Georgia area Libertarian Party.

26 June 2013 By  Leave a Comment

This was originally posted on Porcupine Musings.

The US Supreme Court ruled unanimously this past week that human genes may not be patented. That was a good decision. However those in support of this ruling are by and large hypocrites. They vociferously decried the negative consequences of upholding such patents (limiting research, higher costs, limited choice) but then fail to acknowledge these same deleterious consequences occur for ALL patents. It’s not like these bad things don’t occur for “legitimate” patents but do occur for “illegitimate” ones. Patents are the problem, not their “legitimacy.”

So what are patents (and copyright) (aka Intellectual Property or IP)? Quite simply they are a state granted monopoly for a fixed period of time during which the presumed creator has an exclusive right to do with their creations as they see fit. The hope is that in providing, as a reward, a period of monopolous profits such entities will be incentivized to expend resources in creation and thereby benefit mankind. This unquestioningly presumes that risk should be subsidized by the state. Risk the right way and the state will support you, risk the wrong way and you’re out in the cold. But that’s ok, because IP helps the “little guy” right? Wrong. The IP holder must enforce their IP. This necessitates enormous financial resources to legally pursue IP violations. Only the “big boys” can afford this and thus it becomes clear for whom the IP system was created. The IP system is nothing more than a symptom of state and business cronyism. One of the hallmarks of cronyism is the arbitrariness of the rules and regulations supporting it and IP is nothing if not arbitrary. IP terms have changed over the years, often in concert with the needs of the large corporations whose IP is threatened by expiration.

Although its cronyist roots are reason enough to withdraw support from the IP system, we find that upon closer inspection the whole raison d’être of IP is actually quite absurd. IP rests on the idea that mere ideas can be considered property. For a proper claim (title) to be made, the material in question must be “scarce.” “Scarcity” means there is some marginal cost of production, e.g. clothing is commonly available but it is scarce because it does not simply pop into existence; obtaining it requires some non-trivial expenditure of resources. Where there is scarcity there exists the potential for rivalry or conflict over some particular good. There are two ways to prevent such conflict: 1) invent a way to make the good non-scarce or (2) establish property rights in such objects.  Property rights are the civilized, non-violent alternative to killing each other in order to determine ownership/possession. But when it comes to ideas or non-scarce goods there can be no conflict because both parties can simultaneously possess the thing in question. Therefore without conflict there is no reason to have property rights. Such rights are entirely absurd – you might as well attempt to establish property rights in looking at the moon or the right to whistle. The only possible conflict is over who can legitimately say they thought or did something “first”. Fine, fight over that if you wish. But that is not a property right; just because you had the name “Greg” before me doesn’t preclude me from also using that name.

The idea of scrapping the entire IP system will raise the ire of those who have fallen sway to the false choice paradigm we are propagandized with our whole lives, namely that without such “protections” people will simply stop being creative and all new literature, music and inventions would dry up. Seriously. Now doesn’t that sound pretty stupid when you say it out loud. Do you really think there are NO other possible ways creators might get remunerated for their work? Do you truly believe that patents and copyright are the ONLY possible way this could work? These types of objections are about as imaginative as the “but who will pick the cotton?” rejoinders thrown at those that desired to end slavery. In other words, one’s lack of imagination does not invalidate my argument. End the shackles of IP and let loose the entirety of human creativity. (For a more in depth discussion please see the godfather of anti-IP, Stephen Kinsella’s “Against Intellectual Property” which can be downloaded, for free).


2 thoughts on “Greg Morin: Ideas Are Not Property, On Dismantling IP

  1. Alan Pyeatt

    Unfortunately, this article is based on a false premise: “IP rests on the idea that mere ideas can be considered property.”

    The truth is that, at least in the field of copyright law, ideas are NOT considered property. Only the individual EXPRESSION of ideas are considered property. In other words, dramatic, literary, artistic works, etc. can be copyrighted, but not the ideas on which those works are based.

    In fact, according to the Purdue University website , “Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, and processes are not copyrightable” (

    Throwing out all IP laws would mean that if you write a good song, a famous band could record it without ever paying you a dime for your creative work, or even giving you credit for writing it. In fact, famous recording artists have tried to do just that several times, and ended up settling out of court or having judgments rendered against them:

    What is the basis of property ownership? According to John Locke in Chapter 5 of his “Second Treatise of Government,” it is a person’s labor: “The labour of his body and the work of hands we may say are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”

    The fact that Locke mentioned “the labour of his body and the work of hands” without mentioning a person’s intellect does not make it any less his or her property than if a person didn’t have hands.

    Please note that this passage refers to the origin of property, and is NOT a labor theory of value.

    Our IP laws are far from perfect, and any improvements would be welcome. But throwing out the entire concept of IP would be a terrible injustice to millions of people who spend their lives creating works of art, music, and literature.

    That would be a very ironic thing for libertarians to do, since we work so hard to protect people’s property from theft by governments, corporations, and individuals.

  2. Greg Morin

    As the author of the article I thought I would take a moment to respond to the comment above. The central question is how do we define “property”. We agree that mere ideas are not property. However even the “expression” of those ideas can not be property either if they are non-scarce and non-rivalrous. Just because we can say something is “property” does not mean it is property. Definitions matter. Property’s only role is as a tool to avoid conflict between people over a particular rivalrous material. Intangible goods with zero marginal cost (i.e. trivially reproduced) cannot be property by definition. I understand some people gain an advantage by calling such things property and that it is good for them… but that is not a reason to ignore definitions and use the power of the state to enforce rules that advantage some and disadvantage others. Slaveholders called their slaves “property” and such a designation was advantageous to the slave owners… but simply choosing to make that designation does not make it right or proper.

    The example cited (of a song being stolen from a songwriter) are a testament to what is wrong with IP. Songwriter’s and similar artists get themselves in this situation (having to sue) today because there is an expectation that the state will protect them from such “theft” so they let their guard down and thus it becomes easier to steal from them. Absent IP “protection” such artists would be far more discriminating in how they allowed their works to be made public. They would keep it secret until they had obtained the best and highest price from a leading musical band. At that point the artist has gotten all he expects to get. He has an incentive to approach the band which will give him the highest price as it means more money for him, and likewise only those bands with sufficient fame will be interested in the works of the best songwriters in order to maintain their fame. Also even ifsome small time band also performs it they will lose nothing. Some guy in a bar is simply not compete with a world renowned band. Second tier songwriters approach second tier bands… and so on… the greater the skill of the songwriter, the greater they can demand compensation, the lower the skill, the less they can demand.

    Throwing out IP as it exists today does not mean that artists and such would simply be fending for themselves in some legal wasteland. They obviously would have an incentive to ensure they are remunerated for their efforts and where there is incentive there will be results. For more thoughts on how this might work please see the original post and scroll down midway to the extended discussion section at

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