Against Intellectual Monopoly


There is a widespread assumption that copyright and patents are good things to have. In part, this is because they are generally termed “intellectual property”, and everyone knows that the more property you have, the better.

But as in so many other areas of life, what you call something has a major influence on how you view it (just think of the “pro choice” and “pro life” labels that some for and against abortion employ). And so it is here: “intellectual property” is only one way of looking at things.

Many – including myself - believe that a better description of copyright and patents is to call them “intellectual monopolies”, since they are just that: state-granted monopolies that give the power to exclude others from using certain kinds of ideas.

Once you move away from the loaded “intellectual property”, you can examine objectively whether such intellectual monopolies are, in fact, beneficial for society – both in terms of those holding them, and those who must operate with them. The definitive exploration of this is the book Against Intellectual Monopoly, by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine:

It is common to argue that intellectual property in the form of copyright and patent is necessary for the innovation and creation of ideas and inventions such as machines, drugs, computer software, books, music, literature and movies. In fact intellectual property is a government grant of a costly and dangerous private monopoly over ideas. We show through theory and example that intellectual monopoly is not necessary for innovation and as a practical matter is damaging to growth, prosperity and liberty.

The book is being published by Cambridge University Press and should be available later this year, but you can read it now, free of charge, because – true to their ideas – the authors have made available a digital copy online. If you read only one business book this year, make it this one: it will change the way you look at that much-ballyhooed thing formerly known as “IP”.

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