IP+ Like Barbed Wire?

“Without barbed wire the Plains homestead could never have been protected from the grazing herds and therefore could not have been possible as an agricultural unit.” (1931) …

English common law made livestock owners responsible for damages by roaming livestock, assigning the responsibility to fence in livestock. In contrast, the American colonies adopted legal codes that required farmers to fence out others’ livestock. Without a “lawful fence,” farmers had no formal entitlement to compensation for damages by others’ livestock. …

From 1880 to 1900, the introduction and near-universal adoption of barbed wire [in the US west] greatly reduced the cost of fences, relative to the predominant wooden fences, especially in counties with the least woodland. Over that period, … average crop productivity increased relatively by 23% in counties with the least woodland, controlling for crop-specific differences among counties and crop-specific statewide shocks. The increased productivity was entirely among crops more susceptible to damage from roaming livestock. … This increase in agricultural development appears partly to reflect farmers’ increased ability to protect their land from encroachment. (more)

Before the invention of barbed wire, it just didn’t make sense to build fences around farms in areas with little wood. Thus, it didn’t make as much sense to farm, near where others raised livestock. If you farmed, nearby livestock might just come and eat or trample your crops. In such times and places, many ranchers probably thought that “natural law” favored ranching, not farming, and favored property in animals more than property in land.

But the kinds of property and activity that makes sense depends on the available institutions and technology. Before barbed wire, it make less sense to farm, or to enforce property rights in land against roaming animals. But after barbed wire, farming and land property rights made a lot more sense.

Similarly, the kinds of innovation activities and intellectual property rights that make sense depend on available institutions and technologies. I’m happy to admit that today intellectual property (IP) is not obviously a good idea. Such property can create large “anti-commons” transaction and enforcement costs that greatly raise the cost of combining old ideas into valuable new ideas. Such costs often outweigh the social benefits of the incentives to create IP, in order to sell it. Today, it is often better to rely on other social incentives to innovate, incentives that don’t require such expensive support.

But if true, this is a sad fact about our limited abilities, not a fundamental natural law or right. You have no fundamental right to enjoy the innovations produced by others without compensating them. You owe them, at least your gratitude. Yes for now it may be best to let you take innovations freely without paying, since the alternative seems too expensive. But you have no right to expect that situation to last forever, any more than ranchers had a right to expect they could forever let their animals trample nearby farms.

Just as farmers developed barbed-wire, someday I expect IP advocates will develop better forms of intellectual property, and better technologies for marking, sharing, and enforcing such property. Using such innovations, I expect we will allow more and stronger intellectual property, and more of the world economy will focus on developing such property. Which, like barbed-wire, will mostly be a good thing.

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  • Hedonic Treader

    What about a much more time-limited copyright concept? For instance, it could be defined that copyright of music clips, books or video games expire after 5 or 10 years. This way, innovation lifecycles would be economically encouraged, but there would be no artificial barriers to archiving, sharing and remixing the cultural history of humanity.

    In just a small number of years, it will be possible to produce earplugs for a couple of bucks that either have the entire musical history of this planet stored or that provide high-bandwidth access to it. Imagine billions of people having cheap access to all this accumulated cultural wealth. Why throw all that value away?

    You have no fundamental right to enjoy the innovations produced by others without compensating them.

    No, but neither do they have a fundamental right to demand that people be criminalized just for copying or mashing-up music clips. “Fundamental rights” are just shorthands for human rules and conventions anyway. Last I’ve heard, no one put a gun to the musicians’ or authors’ heads and forced them to create art. If they don’t think it’s worth it, they can do something else instead, and if artistic innovation really became rare because of it, society would react to encourage artists one way or another.

  • Randall Randall

    A book is a thing. The group of all books which are sufficiently similar to a given book (say, this signed _Kings of the High Frontier_ I have here) is a category. For the most part, ownership of things is useful because things are inherently scarce. Categories are not inherently scarce, and so creating property rights in them is equivalent to enforcing scarcity, which reduces wealth.

    In a more practical sense, though, bits do not have color: http://ansuz.sooke.bc.ca/entry/23

    Any scheme which can reliably enforce property rights in “intellectual property” will essentially have to remove the possibility of individual ownership of a computer; copying bits is one of the essential things a computer does.

    • Matt Knowles

      The trick is not to ‘enforce property rights in “intellectual property”‘.

      The trick is to compensate the creators of intellectual property.

      The problem is that, right now, the only way people can think of to do the latter is to do the former.

  • James Cameron

    I wonder how barbed wire IP would affect education. I’d expect some sort of revolution: education would no longer focus on producing factory workers based on frequent evaluations, switching to a more grad school research-oriented style based on producing original work. Since the original work of students would be lower quality, you’d sell them for grades instead of money. The best student would earn money and create a portfolio of successful IPs that they would get paid for, which I assume would better incentivize school.

    The great transition would be when you leave school, assuming education has free access to many IP databases. You’d leave school with a small portfolio and choose your IPs (and thus your lifestyle) based on what you want to have access to.

    Of course you’d inevitably have a lot of trash and in a more globalized world fewer and fewer people would dominate the conversation, but that would drive the price down for important works. I’d imagine status would be based off of obscurity of your access to IPs, or how fast you could access them. The hipsters would inherit the Earth.

  • All reasonable except the second-to-last paragraph, which is not helpful. You’ve made several highly contested normative claims, e.g. equating the physical damage done on one person’s property by another’s property with a failure to pay people for ideas. I’m not sure what the point of this was, since I expect most of the comments will now focus on the (un)reasonableness of these normative claims rather than the much more interesting empirical question of whether strong IP really will be beneficial in the future, and how we might get there.

  • Patrick

    Yeah… the question is not whether we have a “fundamental right to enjoy the innovations produced by others without compensating them.” Granting that we don’t, that tells us nothing about IP law. The question is whether other people have a “fundamental right” to be compensated for their ideas. I’ll note that most academic justifications for IP laws don’t actually involve asserting this; for the most part they rely on incentive theories. If the point of IP law is to give an incentive for innovation (as most theorists assert), then the question of who has what fundamental rights (and what that even might mean) is entirely irrelevant; what we need to know is what the best policies are to encourage innovation. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s not associated with the content industry who thinks the answer to this question is strong IP laws in the form we currently have them.

    Of course, given that you have some moralistic language in there, maybe you do think people have a fundamental right to be compensated for their ideas, and that this is an appropriate area for state intervention. If so, I’d be interested in hearing an actual argument on that front.

    • Lurker

      I’d like to note that the IP rights are statutory. They are not of natural or divine right. They are not even common law. Any IP right is a monopoly granted by the state to a person, as a reward for creating an original expression or something similar. Thus, if there were no statutory law concerning copyright, I would have a 1st amendment right to put your post on my blog, using my name.

      • Anders Eurenius

        […] I would have a 1st amendment right to put your post on my blog, using my name.

        Possible, but you are confusing the right to produce copies with the rights of authorship. Regardless of your right to reproduce the work, it would be a lie (fraudulent?) to pretend that you wrote it.

        …Although, I fear that it might in fact be legal in the US because the publishers don’t like right they can’t own like that. (If you thought that the author/creator was who copyright is for, you’re an idiot..)

      • nick

        Um, no. In the U.S., at least, copyright and patent are Constitutional. That makes them pretty fundamental. Article I, section 8, clause 8.

      • Lurker


        I know. The patents and copyrights are constitutional. They are exceptions to the general 1st amendment right of free speech.

        However, the constitution only mandates that Congress may make statutory copyright laws. It does not oblige the Congress to do that. Thus, if the Copyright Act were repealed (very unlikely), there would be no copyright protection at all, only the right of free speech.

  • Robert Ellickson’s “Order Without Law” begins (and heavily focuses on) a dispute among Shasta county California ranchers on range law. The residents mistakenly believe that the law determines fault when a car strikes an animal, when it actually determines whether the animal or landowner is required to fence the animal away from trespassing. They don’t resort to legal measures dealing with the latter issue, so Coasean issues of assigning property rights don’t come into play.

    Europe has a history of quasi-pastoralism, in which pastoralists were fairly stationary. Hence it should not be surprising that the feudal order was based on land ownership. In contrast, in places like Africa were pastoralists ranged further owning a permanent piece of land was less important and owning animals moreso. In southeast asia the dominant form of agriculture was very labor intensive, and so authorities concerned themselves with (and went to war over) peasants rather than land itself. Americans would have inherited European norms and so ownership of land would have been considered natural, but impractical to enforce in certain situations.

    • nick

      This is a great comment, but I’d add that it’s not a one-way relationship between law/security and ecology. Europe may well have developed quasi-pastoralism because they enforced property rights in land, and the nomads of Africa not because they didn’t, more than vice versa.

      In the American livestock-and-fencing rule case I can buy that the causation went largely from ecology to law. They had an abundance of cheap or free wild lands on which to feed livestock. Americans also partially regressed from horses to oxen as draft animals, after several centuries of an English move from oxen to horses, since oxen can be more easily fed on wild lands whereas good draft horse work generally requires fodder.

      There may also be transport costs and comparative advantage at work. If you’re far away from navigable water, and so can’t afford to transport your grain to market, cattle, which can be driven over a much larger distance, have a comparable advantage. So an efficient rule would favor the dominant industry in these areas. Even if conditions change, for example the coming of a railroad that makes grain growing competitive, once the rule is in place, roving pastoralism (and the associated pathologies) can be locked in until cheap fencing becomes available. However, I’d bet that near the railroads grain farming would have won out anyway, and they would have figured out creative ways to secure their farms (ditches, hedges, stone fences, etc.) The British didn’t have barbed wire but enclosed their livestock (under the reverse rule) just fine.

  • Marcus

    The artificial creation of more “haves” vs “have-nots” is a good thing? Just like the protections of vast estates on which serfs may work? The artificial creation of larger and more abstract rent-collecting domains, just like with physical property dominated by few and used as wealth toward increasingly sophisticated weaponry and payment of serfs to help with often violent domination of other serfs?


    Please do tell your reasoning, at least we can learn more how the academic set serves these masters so well too.

  • Marcus

    The real howler here is you are equating cattle with people. Freudian slip much?

  • George

    The analogy doesn’t make sense at all. The farmer had his scarce land infringed upon. The land could be used for one use OR another use, which is why there is property.

    Intellectual property, on the other hand, has no such tie to any reality. It is based solely on an artificial restriction imposed by one set of humans on another. It is all about protecting big businesses from competition, increasing barriers to entry, and increasing totalitarianism and fascism since that is the only way you can reasonably enforce it.

    A truly free and liberal (in the classic sense) society would have no place for such cruft.

  • Think it Over

    Most of your dreams of cybernetic brain enhancement, brain uploading, strong AI, etc., are essentially incompatible with a world that also has strong IP enforcement.

    Think about your ideas and follow through on their implications.

  • Do you have the faintest idea how IP+ would work?

    The recent technological trend has been in the opposite direction: the internet both facilitates unauthorized copying, and creates a situation where it makes sense for people to give away their IP for free.

    It’s possible that we’ll create a new form of IP that will reverse this trend, but you need more than a vague analogy with barbed wire to argue that that is likely.

  • Hyena

    The most obvious benefit of a highly granular IP system is a moral, not incentive, benefit: we’d be able to pay people who now otherwise work for free, for example, people who developed Linux.

    I seriously doubt, however, that a future world would see much use for granular IP from an incentive standpoint. That world is far wealthier, more able to create IP and has more substitutes for any given IP. Since creation costs of the overwhelming amount of IP approach zero–witness, again, Linux was built for free–the incentives would be negligible vis-a-vis other work.

    More likely it would suffice to enforce rules against industrial scale ripoffs and leave the rest alone. Being first-to-market would be much more valuable in a wealthier society with a better communications structure (and uptake), leaving the marginal benefit of granular IP protections low and possibly the real benefit still negative because of enforcement costs.

    • Hyena

      In this world, it’s probably more important, for example, to work for an unprotected team developing a networked system and bringing it to market first. The network effect will propel you far further than IP protection will.

    • Hedonic Treader

      That world is far wealthier

      This one includes some unclear assumptions, however. Handling peak oil and civilization-impacting environmental stressors, for instance. It is not self-evidently true that total wealth will increase rather than decrease.

      • Hyena

        A poorer, or even stagnant, world seems unlikely to create the infrastructure for granular IP in the first place.

    • BrianDH

      Nowadays, most Linux developers are paid. From late 2008 to early 2010 about 75% of contributions to the kernel were made by corporate developers: http://apcmag.com/linux-now-75-corporate.htm

      And while many of the other 25% were likely working for the intrinsic value they derived from it, at least a small portion, in addition, were probably independent consultants who did not list their clients. And another portion probably came from academia, which is “paid” in a sense.

      Of course, the composition of the contributor pool varies in other projects that are not the kernel but are part of the larger “ecosystem”.

      (BTW, I’m not trying to say anything pro or con your idea — I’m just trying to clear up this common misconception)

      • Hyena

        There is no misconception, just muddied tense because the people who developed Linux initially aren’t mostly dead.

  • Anders Eurenius

    I will assume that you are not using the phrase “IP” to help muddy the waters, like confusing trademark (a consumer protection) violations with counterfeit medicines, (endangering the public) or anything like that.

    I too, have objections to the second-to-last paragraph:

    But if true, this is a sad fact about our limited abilities, not a fundamental natural law or right.

    True, but as Riedel points out above, it implies nothing else.

    You have no fundamental right to enjoy the innovations produced by others without compensating them.

    I would like to think I have right to use my own inventions, but the “IP” proponents would deny me:

    Patents, are so named from the phrase “literare patentis”, (“open letter”, wherein the inventor explains the invention) are intentionally incomprehensible, overly broad and filed in such quantities for so small, incremental “inventions”, it’s impossible to keep up with any field. Even the invention of the idea of inventing something that does X is apparently enough to deny me the use of my own invention.

    You owe them, at least your gratitude.

    I would say, that you also owe them the truth of acknowledging them as the originators (or even just inspirations) of whatever you take.

    Yes for now it may be best to let you take innovations freely without paying, since the alternative seems too expensive.

    Again, the idea that monies are the whole of the issue is completely absurd. Even if you had an effectively infinite supply of money, negotiating with all the (claimed, perceived or just fraudulent) “property owners” would be absurd. This is, to some extent, why air travel (over others’ land) is not considered trespassing.

    But you have no right to expect that situation to last forever, any more than ranchers had a right to expect they could forever let their animals trample nearby farms.

    The analogy of light is much better:

    If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

    Thomas Jefferson

    • Ari T

      Correction. You have no fundamental right to anything. With some abstract level of thinking any simple moral concept can be shattered to pieces.

      • Ari T

        “Even if you had an effectively infinite supply of money, negotiating with all the (claimed, perceived or just fraudulent) “property owners” would be absurd.This is, to some extent, why air travel (over others’ land) is not considered trespassing.”
        Great quote!

        Also pardon, that previous reply of mine was a reply to RH not to Anders.

  • Craig Turner

    You can’t share a piece of property without it affecting its use. The same is not true with ideas. The general value of an idea increases with use, because understanding and commonality increases.

    The reason we are tempted to is because lobbyists have managed to get the word “property” attached to ideas in law. Without this, people wouldn’t have cause to twist themselves and their analogies. It’s newspeak at work.

    It’s invalid to equate the idea of barbed wire to ideas.

  • If I develop a better system for intellectual property does that mean that the rest of the world has no fundamental right to use it without my consent?

    You’d better hope that the IP advocates who will eventually overcome our limited abilities to develop effective IP law will be kind enough not to apply those brilliant new laws to their own discovery.

    Otherwise, all the benefits of any future innovation will be sacrificed to cover the royalties for the laws that encouraged those innovations. Other innovators will also sacrifice their own royalties to pay for the system that supposedly protects them. Incentive to innovate will all but disappear — hardly the intent of IP+.

    It seems like your dream scenario hinges upon a tremendous act of charity from those would bring it about. But if we’re pinning all our hopes upon the altruism of innovators anyway then what’s the point of strong IP?

    • Michael Wengler

      If I develop a better system for intellectual property does that mean that the rest of the world has no fundamental right to use it without my consent?

      Brilliant! The academic spewing his ideas willy-nilly for free. Of course, this is part of the “freemium” model of universities: you get famous by publicizing for free, and that induced people to buy your premium products (degrees or education, depending on how realistic you are being about what you do.)

      I would love to see a somewhat quantitative analysis of when and how it is optimum to own IP and when and how it is optimum to not own it. It seems clear to me that the vast majority of patents now are BS, essentially things that anybody competent would come up with when asked to solve a particular problem. If patents really were inventive, then there wouldn’t be races to the patent office.

      How about you can only patent stuff which no one else comes up with within 6 months of your applying for the patent? That is, the literature search happens for literature before your patent application and up to 6 months after your application. Consistent with current patent law where applications are not published until 6 months after they are recieved. In all areas where duplicate ideas are submitted within 6 months, no one owns the patent (and the applications are then NOT published.) We’d have a lot fewer patents, the ones we had would be a lot more fundamental.

      My intuition is we would be a lot better off with FEWER barriers to idea-combining, not more. I am not a brilliant economist, where are the brilliant economists analysing this?

  • billswift

    The biggest problem with “IP” law is that the changes in it have been moving in the wrong direction. Returning the copyright and patent regimes to where they were in the mid-1970s would be an outstanding improvement over where things are now.

  • Harrison Ainsworth

    Your apparently underlying justification seems to rest on the conflation of production and distribution. There is no necessary join here: production can be compensated while copying is completely free. That is the essence of abstract/nonrival goods. So you seem to have no basis to propose property-like restrictions.

    Here is the ideal: we pay people for the time/effort/resources to create, then we all copy and use that product freely and unrestrictedly. It is not essentially a matter of property. We want new and better systems of organisation, but the restrictions of property are what we want to *avoid* if at all possible.

    That abstract goods are infinitely copyable is exactly why they are especially valuable. To restrict that with no reason would seem utterly foolish, like simply throwing away a free natural resource. So unless you have a good reason, your efforts would be better applied thinking of non-property alternatives.

    • Strongly, strongly agree.

      In Robin’s defense, he has previously advocated several ideas for encouraging intellectual production without resorting to property rights, such as invention bounties and direct cash payments to academics.

    • nick

      Who is “we”?

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  • I wonder why an economist would be so enamored of a nonexistent system for managing IP rights, when the biggest economic innovation of our time is almost exactly the opposite — open source peer production with no IP claims whatsoever. That invention has brought you most of the technology you use on the Internet and a good deal of the content, and in general has created enormous value, yet “economists” pay it almost no mind, because it doesn’t fit into their autistic mathematical models.

    It would certainly be nice if there were better ways to compensate the creators of this non-owned intellectual wealth (a better term than IP), but reintroducing barbed wire doesn’t sound like the way. We just went through a period where open access clearly beat the enclosed model, and nobody (other than hopelessly retro rentiers like academic publishers) wants to go backwards.

  • Re: “I expect IP advocates will develop better forms of intellectual property, and better technologies for marking, sharing, and enforcing such property.”

    Whereas, I expect that, in the future, information will flow more freely, and today’s attempts to construct toll-booths on the information superhighway will seem stupid and archaic.

  • jva

    Why not simply use the existing “pay it forward” system like General Public License or Creative Commons? The main idea is “you may take and use all my ideas as long as everyone can use your ideas that are evidently based on my ideas, also, attach this clause to your ideas.” Seeing that it is hard to sell ideas, the system vastly reduces the costs of ideas and places no restrictions on selling implementations, putting scarcity where it belongs – in physical world. Overall wealth is increased as people no longer have to invent the wheel (desing operating system, web publishing, catchy tunes) from scratch and can instead work on improving those ideas.

  • Ari T

    Some people seem to see the issue pretty black and white.

    While I don’t like IP in today’s world, I can definitely see the reasonableness on the other side of the issue. The capital expenditures for information is high yet the marginal cost of information is zero, thus there could be incentive problems to create ideas. However one must not forget that most ideas are very much derivates from previous ones.

    However the reason I don’t like IP is two-folded.

    There’s no paradise on earth. Atleast that what I thought before. But the world of ideas is a paradise. There’s no scarcity, ideas are immortal. One could create an idea, and everyone afterwards could enjoy it for generations to come, almost no matter how poor they are. It is really a powerful thought when I first realized this.

    Then the state comes around and starts to put up some barbed wire so to speak, and tell which ideas are owned by which people, and who are allowed to enjoy these ideas and how many times. It makes me sad.

    Also one reason I don’t like IP so much is like I don’t like taxing positive externalities. While I can easily see the economic argument for that, there’s something inherently dangerous of giving judges, politicians and special interest groups so much power in alleged lack of economic surplus. This is the dimension that I usually thinking about the most when I’m reading about institutional design. The current patent mess is a great example of a failed inst. design, I don’t see anything “great” about that.

    You can have your agricultural subsidies if I can keep the world of ideas free.

  • jva

    Also, the comparison of IP to barbed wire is very apt. I recall reading the following some 5-10 years ago –

    “The symbol of copyright should be a candle surrounded with barbed wire, symbolizing that even though I could let you light your candle without diminishing the light of mine, I will not let you do that.”

    Can not find the source, unfortunately.

  • Ari T

    Also the fact that almost charity is enough to create out of equilibrium spending on 3rd world support, should say something about possibilities of human freedom for art support.

    RH: “Just as farmers developed barbed-wire, someday I expect IP advocates will develop better forms of intellectual property … Which, like barbed-wire, will mostly be a good thing. ”

    I think this analogy is false, or atleast missing something important. We use barbed wire because crops and farmland is scarce, but ideas are not, not even great ideas.

    Anyone who has created art at some form know that most of it would have never been possible without the “capital production chain” of previous ideas, all of which can never be compensated. Boldrin and Levine have documented a lot of these.

    And like Newton said. “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”. Now if someone is waiting for some barbed wire around Newton’s law of universal gravitation, don’t hold your breath.

  • Hyman Rosen

    Re: “I expect IP advocates will develop better forms of intellectual property, and better technologies for marking, sharing, and enforcing such property.”,

    I also expect that Communism advocates will develop better forms of deciding how resources should be allocated and better technologies for enforcing such resource allocation, so that we may one day truly have “From each according to his ability. To each according to his needs.”

  • Patent law is not a bar to any kind of speech. It only bars the making, using and selling of the invention.

    I heard an interview on NPR this morning where a Senator was bemoaning the fact that the economy is not as strong today as it has been for the last 50 years and so government tinkering has to be done more carefully.

    He was talking like no one knows why the economy is not as strong, where it is pretty clear what the problem is. The economy has become less efficient. If the economy was more efficient, there would be more surplus available for growth.

    What has happened is that each little bit of the economy has gotten better at extracting the value-added of that particular little bit of the economy. If too much of the value-added is extracted by one party, there isn’t enough left in the value-added chain to nourish the rest of the chain and the chain (the rest of the economy) cannot grow.

    This is what a monopoly power can do, it can extract value disproportionate to its value-added. That extracted value comes from somewhere, and so the economy is stifled. The marketplace doesn’t favor the best inventions, it favors the most profitable ones because profit can be used as a weapon to defeat the less profitable ones. Spending $100 in IP barbed wire to make $10 in IP profit is no different than spending $0 in IP barbed wire and making $10 in IP profit to the producer, but the consumer pays $110 in the first case and $10 in the second.

  • I think Robin makes a good argument, that legal systems influence what economic systems are viable within a culture.

    Robin is mistaken, I believe, in his attitude that being able to copy from others without permission/attribution is somehow ‘sad’, or ‘wrong’. I happen to agree that attribution is a socially beneficial ‘good’, but there are enough social carrots / sticks (reputation, shame, pointing-to-recognized-authority, gratitude), that it doesn’t need to be encoded in a legal framework with ‘real’ carrots and sticks.

    Farming/cattle ranching being made uneconomical due to a poor legal system is ‘sad’.

    At the end of the day the system that produces the most ‘goods’ with the fewest ‘bads’ is the one that is going to win.

    With real-world-physical items, a legal concept of ‘property’ is a winner, because of the non-sharability of physical items. Land can either produce crops, or graze cattle–not both!

    With information, a legal concept of ‘property’ is a loser, because there is no downside—except, some think, the lack of incentive to create.

    I would argue that the ‘lack of incentive’ position is mistaken. If anything, the world of fashion, and open-source software, has shown that we get MORE creativity, not less. In fact, we so much creativity, it becomes a difficult problem of filtering what is wanted.

    The ‘super-abundance of riches’ problem, is kind of a nice one to have. Unfortunately, our own poor legal framework, with bogus protections, makes it harder to solve. If Steve Jobs didn’t have patents and copyright, he would have turned to something else to enforce control. Probably just his own reputation and name, mixed with a bit of public-key cryptography, similar to Linus Torvalds. The lost opportunity cost is hidden and large.

    No system is perfect, but some are better than others, depending on the goal. The key is to keep focus on what the real goals are: more goodies for more people. Protections, for those who seek to close-off and rent out the intellectual-spaces the’ve stumbled upon, is not a good in and of itself.

  • It’s a very good question.

    One approach we already have, and could emphasize more, is providing service rather than providing bits. When a person or a program provides a service, they don’t give away the crucial information needed to replicate that service. They only give away one instance of the service, which in many cases is only valuable to one specific client.

    Another approach we already have, mainly for the arts, is to control performance rather than copying. This approach is already used in theater, where you have to pay to put on a production. Any sort of mass production, by its nature, will be difficult to do in secret.

    Those are two approaches we already use to some degree. What else might we do? Is there some approach not yet really tried?

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  • K

    “You have no fundamental right to enjoy the innovations produced by others without compensating them.”

    Forever??? Like land? If I circumnavigate the globe do I owe compensation to the descendants Christopher Columbus? What natural law is this? All the wealth of the world belongs to those who happen to have been born first? Economic efficiency holds that at equilibrium the expected return is equal to the marginal cost of production. Or, how about “you have a fundamental right to *keep your ideas to yourself*! Failing that, you are SOL, since nobody forced them out of you.

    If I was an extremist libertarian I would argue the following: Everybody has the right to contract. But society doesn’t have a right to contract on my behalf. Therefore if an individual wants to contract with society to disclose his idea in return for compensation he must negotiate individually with each member of society. If I don’t accept the terms of his contract, I am under no obligation to respect it.

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  • Ernie Bornhemer

    If it’s true that I “have no fundamental right to enjoy the innovations produced by others without compensating them,” then it’s also true those others have no fundamental right to so-called compensation from me.

    Robin assumes private property and markets are inherently Good Things, and builds his arguments from there. But in doing so, he assumes too much. They’re social constructs, and their existence needs to be justified. It’s not at all obvious to me that they can be, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise.