The case for socialist intellectual ownership.

UPDATE: Stephan Kinsella has written yet another of his empty rebuttals, this time about this entry (calling it “the worst argument for IP ever,” which indicates that he apparently is either a horrible reader or that he thinks a system without property is a system of property). I already addressed the little amount of substance in what he wrote in my comment to it.


As I’ve discussed before, the case against IP from the libertarian side is predicated on the fact that IP is a particularly destructive and unjustified form of property. As a libsoc, I do not believe in property, therefore I reject IP on that basis also, although I do not think IP is particularly destructive or unjustified: all rights to property are destructive and unjustified.

But the other side of IP, the premise that intellectual work must be rewarded above and beyond labor, is rarely examined, much in the same way that we don’t examine usury. The questions that are invariably asked along that line are pragmatic in nature (i.e. does IP actually stimulate innovation and reward innovators?) instead of being ethical (i.e. is it just to stimulate innovation and reward innovators, and if so, how and how much?)

The two issues are linked. IP does not stimulate innovation and it does not reward innovators because it is founded on commodity fetishism; it is the owner of the idea itself, being an abstract piece of property, who is rewarded, not the individual who laboured to discover it (I do not mean to imply that there must only be one discoverer involved, but I am using the singular as a simplification). IP is a failure, not because it recognizes intellectual work, but because it is a form of property. This is why I propose the term IO (intellectual ownership).

My position on IO may seem to contradict my belief in a system of equal wages. I’ve said before that the justification for equal wages is that our production is only a tiny margin on everyone else’s production, and that therefore we are no more entitled to an unequal part of society’s production than everyone else. But this scenario assumes a fixed system where there is no innovation present. If person A invents a new manufacturing process, which is then used by person B, to the exclusion of anything else, to produce some commodity, person B owes more to person A for his production than he does to any other specific person. The same can be said for a publishing business regarding the authors whose work it publishes.

In the IO system, innovation or creative works are first registered in the same way than they are today. The differences start when we look at what this registration implies. In the IP system, holding a patent or a copyright means you hold an artificial monopoly over that property for a long period of time, consumers have to pay monopoly prices combined with a lack of choice, and innovation is blocked because other producers cannot use and improve upon the innovation.

In the IO system, everyone is encouraged to manufacture products which take advantage of the innovation. There is no restriction of the kind we see today. The only limitation is that the cost-price must be raised by a certain percentage, reflecting the added cost of the innovation itself. In the case of artistic works, this percentage might be up to 1%, but in the case of innovations, it would be a range something like 0.1%-0.01%, the specific percentage in each case depending on how significant the improvement is (the actual percentages are just my guess and are not meant to be realistic: if the real percentages are more like 5% or 10%, then the cost-price should be raised by 5% or 10% instead).

So this is a sort of automatic licensing system, but unlike licensing systems, any ideas not licensed can be used without any repercussions whatsoever. There is therefore a strong incentive for people to make their discoveries public instead of hiding them under non-disclosure contracts, especially since the inventor himself, in a system without usury, gets as much more money from other people selling products based on his innovations than if he had a monopoly imposed on it (assuming of course that in both cases supply would be equal: in fact, it is likely that the inventor would gain more from the former case).

In the IP system, which is based on commodity fetishism, the owner of the “intellectual property” is rewarded (generally some faceless corporation with the clout to sue anyone who steps on their toes). In IO, it is the individual who performed the labor of discovery who is rewarded, since it is this labor that is recognized as embodied in the innovation.

The IO system, therefore, does everything that the IP system is supposed to accomplish but does not actually accomplish: 1. reward inventors properly, 2. stimulate innovation, 3. encourage the sharing of information. On each point, we find that the IP system not only fails, but has effects which are contrary to the objective. The IO system, on the other hand, fulfills each of these points. Not only that, but it also brings with it the massive advantage that consumers no longer have to pay monopoly prices (which can be murderous if you are, say, a sick Ghanaian and the pill you need costs fifty US dollars because there are five patents on it) and suffer lack of choice in the name of protecting innovation. If you’re against IO and for IP, then you’re basically pro-monopoly prices and anti-poor.

It also puts an upper limit on the ever-expanding horizon of IP: obviously, if the inventor dies, the royalties have to end as well, since they are tied to him personally. But one would expect that a rational system would limit royalties farther than that. Ultimately, the time interval within which IO applies would have to be dependent on the time it takes for any given innovation to be integrated in the framework of production and become old hat, for example. I would not hazard to guess what a reasonable interval would be, and I assume it would depend on the kind of intellectual output put forward.

IO also makes the issue of “pirating” irrelevant, since pirated content is, most of the time, distributed at zero cost-price, and any percentage of zero is zero. Therefore “pirating” could never be a crime in any shape or form.

It also eliminates all concepts of making it illegal to play a song in public without paying fees, or any such nonsense. Playing a song in public involves no cost-prices, and therefore is not under the provision of IO. It does not matter that the “property” is being infringed, since IO recognizes no such property, only labor.

3 thoughts on “The case for socialist intellectual ownership.

  1. The Worst Argument for IP Ever? December 14, 2010 at 20:50

    […] cum socialist to come up with the worst possible combination of confused beliefs. In The case for socialist intellectual ownership, Voluntary Human Extinctionist Francois Tremblay (VHEMT’s motto: “May we live long and […]

  2. […] get very little rewards for innovation in our capitalist systems, and there are easy ways to set up reward systems for innovation that follow egalitarian […]

  3. […] years ago, I published an entry about a system of royalties based on socialism, which I called Intellectual Ownership, in contrast […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: