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A Book that Changes Everything

Mises Daily: Friday, January 16, 2009 by

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At a taped video interview in my office, before the crew would start the camera, a man had to remove my Picasso prints from the wall. The prints are probably under copyright, they said.

But the guy who drew them died 30 years ago. Besides, they are mine.

Doesn't matter. They have to go.

What about the poor fellow who painted the wall behind the prints? Why doesn't he have a copyright? If I scrape off the paint, there is the drywall and its creator. Behind the drywall are the boards, which are surely proprietary too. To avoid the "intellectual-property" thicket, maybe we have to sit in an open field; but there is the problem of the guy who last mowed the grass. Then there is the inventor of the grass to consider.

Is there something wrong with this picture?

The worldly-wise say no. This is just the way things are. It is for us not to question but to obey. So it is with all despotisms in human history. They become so woven into the fabric of daily life that absurdities are no longer questioned. Only a handful of daring people are capable of thinking along completely different lines. But when they do, the earth beneath our feet moves.

Such is the case with Against Intellectual Monopoly (Cambridge University Press, 2008) by Michele Boldrin and David Levine, two daring professors of economics at Washington University in St. Louis. They have written a book that is likely to rock your world, as it has mine. (It is also posted on their site with the permission of the publisher.)

With piracy and struggles over intellectual property in the news daily, it is time to wonder about this issue, its relationship to freedom, property rights, and efficiency. You have to think seriously about where you stand.

This is not one of those no-brainer issues for libertarians, like minimum wage or price controls. The problem is complicated, and solving it requires careful thought. But it is essential that every person do the thinking, and there is no better tool for breaking the intellectual gridlock than this book.

The issue is impossible to escape, from the grave warnings you get from the FBI at the beginning of "your" DVD to the posters warning kids never to download a song to the outrageous settlements transferring billions from firm to firm. It even affects the outrageous prices you pay for medicine at the drug store. The issue of "intellectual property" is a ubiquitous part of modern life.

Some of the police-state tactics used to enforce IP have to make anyone with a conscience squeamish. You have surely wondered about the right and wrong of all this, but, if you are like most people, you figure that copyrights and patents are consistent with the justice that comes from giving the innovator his due. In principle they seem fine, even if the law might be in need of reform.

The first I'd ever thought critically about issues of intellectual property was in reading about it in the abstract many years ago. The Austrian position has traditionally favored copyrights on the same grounds it has favored property rights in general, but has tended to oppose patents on grounds that they are government grants of monopolistic privilege. Machlup, Mises, and Rothbard — as well as Stigler, Plant, and Penrose — have discussed the issue but not at great length and with varying levels of cautious skepticism.

That changed in 2001 with the publication of Stephan Kinsella's article and now monograph "Against Intellectual Property." He made a strongly theoretical argument that ideas are not scarce, do not require rationing, are not diminished by their dissemination, and so cannot really be called property. All IP is unjust, he wrote. It is inconsistent with libertarian ethics and contrary to a free market. He favors the complete repeal of all intellectual-property laws.

The argument initially struck me as crazy on its face. As I considered it further, my own view gradually changed: it's not crazy, I thought, but it is still pie-in-the-sky theorizing that has nothing to do with reality. Kinsella's article appeared just before the explosive public interest in this subject. The patent regime has in the meantime gone completely wild, with nearly 200,000 patents issued every year in the United States, and half a million more in other countries — with 6.1 million patents in effect worldwide — and large firms collecting stockpiles of them.

And the copyright issue has led to a massive struggle between generations: young people live by "pirating" music, movies, software, whereas the old consider this practice to presage the end of the capitalist system as we know it. The music industry has spent billions trying to contain the problem and only ended up engendering consumer embitterment and terrible public relations.

Kinsella's article continued to haunt me personally. It took about six years or so, but I finally worked through all the theoretical problems and came to embrace his view, so you might say that I was predisposed to hear what these authors have to say. What I hadn't realized until encountering the Boldrin/Levine book was just how far-reaching and radical the implications of a detailed look at IP really is.

It is not just a matter of deciding what you believe from a theoretical or political perspective. It is not just a matter of thinking that "pirates" are not really violating moral law. To fully absorb what these authors say changes the way you look at technology, at history, at the ebbs and flows of economic development, and even who the good guys and bad guys are in the history of civilization.

Kinsella deals expertly with the theoretical aspects, while Against Intellectual Monopoly doesn't really go into the theory at great length. What this amazing book deals with is the real-world practice of intellectual-property regulation now and in history. I can make a personal guarantee that not a single objection you think you have to their thesis goes unaddressed in these pages. Their case is like the sun that melts all snow for many miles in all directions.

The implications are utterly shattering, and every day I've turned the pages in the Boldrin/Levine book I've felt that sense of intellectual stimulation that comes along rarely in life — that sense that makes you want to grab anyone off the street and tell that person what this book says. It helps you understand many things that had previously been confusing. The emergent clarity that comes from having absorbed this work is akin to what it must feel like to hear or see for the first time. If they are right, the implications are astonishing.

Their main thesis is a seemingly simple one. Copyright and patents are not part of the natural competitive order. They are products of positive law and legislation, imposed at the behest of market winners as a means of excluding competition. They are government grants of monopolies, and, as neoclassical economists with a promarket disposition, the authors are against monopoly because it raises prices, generates economic stagnation, inhibits innovation, robs consumers, and rewards special interests.

What they have done is apply this conventional model of monopoly to one of the most long-lasting, old-world forms of mercantilist/monopolistic institutional privilege, a surviving form of mercantilist privilege of the 16th century. IP is like a dam in the river of development, or perhaps very large boulders that impede the flow.

They too favor its total repeal but their case goes far beyond the theoretical. They convince you that radical, far-reaching, uncompromising, revolutionary reform is essential to our social well-being now and in the future.

The results are dazzling and utterly persuasive. I personally dare anyone who thinks that he believes in patent or copyright to read this book and deal with it. For this reason, I'm thrilled that the Mises Institute is now carrying the book to give it the broadest possible exposure.

I'm not sure what aspect of their case is the most powerful. Here are just a few examples:

They show that people like James Watt, Eli Whitney, and the Wright Brothers are not heroes of innovation, as legend has it, but rent-seeking mercantilists who dramatically set back the cause of technological development. These people spent vast resources prohibiting third parties from improving "their" product and making it available at a cheaper price. Instead of promoting innovation and profitability, they actually stopped it, even at the cost of their own business dreams.

The authors show that every great period of innovation in human history has taken place in the absence of intellectual property, and that every thicket of IP has ended up stagnating the industries to which they apply. Think of the early years of the web, in which open-source technology inspired breakneck development, until patents and copyright were imposed with the resulting cartelization of operating systems. Even today, the greatest innovations in digital communications come from the highly profitable open-source movement.

It is impossible to develop software without running into IP problems, and the largest players are living off IP and not innovation. Meanwhile, the most profitable and most innovative sector of the web, the porn sector, has no access to courts and IP enforcement because of the stigma associated with it. It is not an accident that absence of IP coincides with growth and innovation. The connection is causal.

And look at the industries that do not have IP access, such as clothing design and architecture and perfume. They are huge and fast moving and fabulous. First movers still make the big bucks, without coercing competition. Boldrin and Levine further speculate that IP is behind one of the great puzzles of the last millennium: stagnation in classical music. The sector is seriously burdened and tethered by IP.

Other mysteries are answered. Why no musical composition of note in England after 1750? England had the world's most strict copyright laws. Why was English literature so popular in the United States in the 19th-century schoolrooms? It could be imported without copyright restriction — and therefore sold cheaply — whereas American authors used IP and limited their market. And consider the irony that Disney, which relies heavily on IP, got its start and makes it largest profits by retelling public-domain stories!

Examples like this abound. One wonders if the modern history of literature and art needs to be completely rewritten. Examples will occur to you that are not discussed in the book, such as fan fiction. It is technically illegal, so far as anyone can tell, to take a copyrighted character and tell a story about him even if the story is original. And yet Harry Potter fan-fiction sites enjoy tens of millions of hits per month. One hosts 5,000 pieces of fan fiction, some as long as 1,000 pages. Enforcement has been spotty and unpredictable.

And yes, the book covers the poster child of the IP world: pharmaceuticals. They muster plenty of evidence that IP here does nothing to promote innovation and widespread availability and is largely responsible for the egregiously high prices of drugs that are driving the system toward socialization.

The authors explore the very strange tendency of capitalists to misdiagnose the source of their profits in a world of IP, spending far more on beating up pirates than they would have earned in a free market. They further demonstrate that IP is a form of exploitation and expropriation that is gravely dangerous for civilization itself.

In short, they have taken what might seem to be merely a geeky concern and moved it to the center of discussion over economic development itself.

What about the far-flung conclusion that IP should be repealed? The authors take away your fears. The development of IP came about in the 16th century as a mechanism for governments to enforce political control and punish dissenters. The cause of this "property right" was then taken over by individuals in the 18th and 19th century as part of the liberal revolution for individual rights. In the 20th century, it was transferred again, to corporations who become the effective owners through copyright. The creators no longer own anything, and let themselves be beaten and abused by their own publishers and production companies.

Boldrin and Levine's thesis really steps up this issue. It makes you wonder how long authors and creators will put up with the nonsense that some company has a state-enforced exclusive to use the work of others for longer than 100 years. Fortunately, the digital age is forcing the issue, and alternatives like Creative Commons (roughly akin to what would exist in a free market) are becoming increasingly popular. As the tyranny has grown more obvious, the free market is responding.

No, the authors are not really Austrian, and I'm not even sure that they can be called libertarians, but they understand the competitive process in ways that would make Hayek and Mises proud. As I've thought more about their book, it seems that it might suggest a revision in classical-liberal theory. We have traditionally thought that cooperation and competition were the two pillars of social order; a third could be added: emulation. In addition, there is surely work to do here that integrates Hayek's theory of knowledge with the problem of IP.

A book that must be understood and absorbed by every thinking person

If the book lacks for anything, it is precisely what Kinsella provides: a robust theory behind the practical analytics. But since Kinsella has already provided this, the value added of real-world application is enormous. I have a minor nit to pick with them on their passing comment on trademarks, which strikes me as wrong. Otherwise, this book moves mountains.

In the coming weeks I will blog about this book chapter by chapter, and Mises.org plans a series of excerpts from it. For now, let me say that a book like this comes along very rarely. Against Intellectual Monopoly is a relatively small manifesto on economics that absolutely must be understood and absorbed by every thinking person without exception.