Against Monopoly

defending the right to innovate

Monopoly corrupts. Absolute monopoly corrupts absolutely.

Copyright Notice: We don't think much of copyright, so you can do what you want with the content on this blog. Of course we are hungry for publicity, so we would be pleased if you avoided plagiarism and gave us credit for what we have written. We encourage you not to impose copyright restrictions on your "derivative" works, but we won't try to stop you. For the legally or statist minded, you can consider yourself subject to a Creative Commons Attribution License.


Sonny Bono Was a Piker

One of the main arguments put forth by the copyright reformist camp is that the term of copyright has gradually been lengthened until now it's as long as life of the author plus 70 years. Incentives all the way to the grave and beyond, if you will; but this doesn't bode well for innovation and is increasingly problematic with more legal wrangling and wasteful rent seeking.

IP advocates like to analogize IP to physical property insofar as they can, while noting obvious differences too. See, for example, Frank Easterbrook's essay "Intellectual Property Is Still Property." (No link available, but it's reprinted in Adam D. Moore, ed., Information Ethics .)

Physical property, as everyone grants, has no term limit, unlike IP. Physical property also never enters the public domain, although it can be abandoned, and then re-homesteaded by a new owner. IP does enter the public domain though, after the expiration of a copyright (or patent).

Lysander Spooner , a 19th-century opponent of slavery and, eventually, of the U.S. Constitution, thought this was bizarre. In his uncompleted 1855 tract The Law of Intellectual Property , he argued for a perpetual right of property in ideas, and stated that it: "is intrinsically the same as, and stands on identically the same grounds with, his right of property in material things; that no distinction, of principle , exists between the two cases" (p. 30). (Spooner's italics.)

So here's my challenge to lawyers such as Frank Easterbrook, Lawrence Lessig, and William Patry: if you really believe that IP is property and that IP holders' rights should be protected just as their rights in their material property are, why not overturn Sonny Bono and extend copyrights (and patents) indefinitely, as long as the underlying IP has not been abandoned by its owner(s)? So why stop a mere 70 years after an author's demise? Presumably this would also put an end to rent seeking and endless lawsuits.

Failure to do so strikes me as prima facie evidence (to quote my old monetary theory prof. in another context) that IP is not property, and in fact is just an old fashioned monopoly. In other words it's the monopoly formerly known as intellectual property. And where there's a monopoly, there's bound to be a gaggle of lawyers chasing from behind.


I think Lessig is well aware that IP is a monopoly. If I understand him correctly, he thinks it a useful one, so long as its term is limited -- but he doesn't argue that it's equivalent to physical property. If I have this wrong, I'd appreciate a link or two to set me straight.
Good point. In Free Culture Lessig notes that it's one thing to say "It's my property, and I should have it forever," but an altogether different thing to say "It's my monopoly, and I should have it forever" (p. 88).

Copyright was a regulated monopoly in 17th century England. The booksellers also had a monopoly, which was broken by the courts.

Lessig should get out of the reformist camp and come on over to the abolitionist side. Of course, his employer might have a problem with this, as he teaches copyright law and so must tow the copyright line, I would think.

Patry, btw, referred to Crosbie Fitch as a nihilist when Crosbie commented at his blog that abolishing copyright would have some salutary effects. Were the abolitionist opponents of slavery nihilists? Of course not and neither are copyright abolitionists.

Easterbrook and Adam D. Moore are probably better exemplars of the point I was making. The latter has a detailed discussion of tangible property rights compared to IP rights in his book Intellectual Property and Information Control .

It's difficult to argue common sense nowadays, especially if it's a radical departure from status quo. For an idea to be successful, it essence must be watered down with elements from directly contradictory ideas until what's left makes no sense whatsoever.

Thus we have people who agree that copyright is an incredibly bad idea, and argue that therefore it's term should be halved.

Submit Comment

Blog Post


Email (optional):

Your Humanity:

Prove you are human by retyping the anti-spam code.
For example if the code is unodosthreefour,
type 1234 in the textbox below.

Anti-spam Code



Most Recent Comments

Claiming Countability Cancels Claims Creates a Cacophony of Cantankerous Counterexamples? Hi I have came across this platform called Saturo Global which does knowledge management in online

Let's See: Pallas, Pan, Patents, Persephone, Perses, Poseidon, Prometheus... Hi I have came across this platform called Saturo Global which does knowledge management in online

An analysis of patent trolls by a trademark lawyer Hi I have came across this platform called Saturo Global which does knowledge management in online

Killing people with patents Hi I have came across this platform called Saturo Global which does knowledge management in online

Dr. Who? Hi I have came across this platform called Saturo Global which does knowledge management in online

WKRP In Cincinnati - Requiem For A Masterpiece

Killing people with patents

Questions and Challenges For Defenders of the Current Copyright Regime Subject Very controversial Gráfica em

The right to rub smooth using a hardened steel tool with ridges Finally got around to looking at the comments, sorry for delay... Replying to Stephan: I'm sorry

Let's See: Pallas, Pan, Patents, Persephone, Perses, Poseidon, Prometheus... Seems like a kinda bizarre proposal to me. We just need to abolish the patent system, not replace

The right to rub smooth using a hardened steel tool with ridges I'm a bit confused by this--even if "hired to invent" went away, that would just change the default

Do we need a law? @ Alexander Baker: So basically, if I copy parts of 'Titus Andronicus' to a webpage without

Do we need a law? The issue is whether the crime is punished not who punishes it. If somebody robs our house we do

Do we need a law? 1. Plagiarism most certainly is illegal, it is called "copyright infringement". One very famous

Yet another proof of the inutility of copyright. The 9/11 Commission report cost $15,000,000 to produce, not counting the salaries of the authors.

WKRP In Cincinnati - Requiem For A Masterpiece P.S. The link to Amazon's WKRP product page:

WKRP In Cincinnati - Requiem For A Masterpiece Hopefully some very good news. Shout! Factory is releasing the entire series of WKRP in Cincinnati,

What's copywritable? Go fish in court. @ Anonymous: You misunderstood my intent. I was actually trying to point out a huge but basic

Rights Violations Aren't the Only Bads I hear that nonsense from pro-IP people all the

Intellectual Property Fosters Corporate Concentration Yeah, I see the discouragement of working on a patented device all the time. Great examples