If Intellectual Property Is Neither Intellectual, Nor Property, What Is It?

from the rethinking dept

Continuing my ongoing series of posts on "intellectual property," I wanted to discuss the phrase itself. It's become common language to call it intellectual property, but that leads to various problems -- most notably the idea that it's just like regular property. It's not hard to come up with numerous reasons why that's not true, but just the word "property" seems to get people tied up. There are some who refuse to use the term, but it is handy shorthand for talking about the general space.

The main reason why I have trouble with the "property" part isn't just the fact that it leads people to try to pretend it's just like tangible property, but because it automatically biases how people think about the concept. As I've written before, the very purpose of "property" and "property rights" was to better manage allocation of scarce resources. If there's no scarce resource at all, then the whole concept of property no longer makes sense. If a resource is infinite, it no longer matters who owns it, because anyone can own it and it doesn't diminish the ownership of anyone else. So, the entire rationale for "property rights" disappears.

Even if you buy into the concept of property rights for intellectual output, a look at the history of property rights suggests that the laws are eventually forced to reflect the realities of the market. Our own Tim Lee just wrote up a masterful comparison of property rights in the early United States to copyright laws, noting how property rights in the US needed to change based on usage, rather than forcing everyone to follow the in-place rules. It's not difficult to see how the same may happen when it comes to "intellectual property" as well, if various companies who rely on those laws don't recognize the realities they face.

However, if we don't want to call it "intellectual property" what should it be called? Here are some of the contenders that people toss out:
  • Intellectual Monopoly: Popularized by economists David Levine and Michele Boldrin, who have a fantastic (and well worth reading) book called Against Intellectual Monopoly. As they point out, patents and copyrights really are monopolies much more than they are property rights. In fact, as we noted early on, that's exactly how Thomas Jefferson and James Madison referred to the concepts when discussing whether or not such monopolies should be allowed by the Constitution.
  • Intellectual Privilege: This one is being popularized by law professor Tom Bell, who is working on a book by the same title. While this is nice in that it retains the "IP" designation, it's also a bit cumbersome and requires a pretty detailed explanation for anyone to understand. For that reason, it may have a lot of difficulty catching on.
  • Imaginary Property: Another one that retains the "IP" designation, and is growing in popularity on some blogs. It's also a little troublesome because it's probably the least accurate (and may also imply something entirely different than copyrights or patents). It gets rid of the "intellectual" part, and keeps the property part, even while calling it imaginary. But, intellectual output isn't imaginary. It's very real. That doesn't mean it's property, of course, but imaginary property may set people off in an entirely different manner.
  • Others: Other suggestions are even less common, but deserve to be mentioned as well, if only briefly. There's use monopoly. Richard Stallman has suggested and rejected Imposed Monopoly Privileges (IMPs) and Government-Originated Legally Enforced Monopolies (GOLEMs), which are cute, but... not very practical. Some have even tried to tie the concept more closely to the "Promote the Progress" constitutional clause -- though, that really only covers copyright and patents. Besides, you again have the problem of it being cumbersome.
  • None of the Above: There's definitely something to be said for voting for none of the above and clearly separating out each of the different types rather than lumping them all together into a single bucket.
In the end, I don't think that there's really a good answer. I think it makes sense for it to be context specific. Using "intellectual property" too freely is definitely a problem, as it creates a mindset and a framework that isn't accurate for the type of rights provided by patents, copyrights and trademarks. Yet, all of the other options have their own problems as well. I tend to think that whenever possible, it's best to use the specific type being discussed (i.e., patents, copyrights, trademarks, etc.). In general, because of common usage, I don't think it's bad to use the phrase "intellectual property" just so that people know what you're talking about -- but we should be careful to not use it in a way that reinforces the concept that it's property just like other kinds of property.
Links to other posts in the series:
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Filed Under: copyright, imaginary property, intellectual monopoly, intellectual privilege, intellectual property, patents, techdirt feature, trademark


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  1. identicon
    Charles Carter, 8 Mar 2008 @ 3:14pm

    Re: It IS TOO Intellectual Property

    > Ok. I see where we disagree. Let me try to explain.
    > I am not saying that you shouldn't have the right
    > to exploit your labor. But I am saying that we should
    > let the market decide how to best price that output.

    Right!

    > You are saying that the gov't has a societal interest
    > in artificially inflating the price of that output via
    > an artificial scarcity.

    No! I'm saying that the INDIVIDUAL (and by extension the society) has an interest in seeing a return on his labor. A workman is worthy of his wages.

    > If the history of economics has taught us anything,
    > it should be that those artificial limitations on
    > economic resources has terrible economic unintended
    > consequences.

    True, as far as it goes, but the normal expectations for tangible goods does not apply to intangible goods. For example, selling cheap knockoffs of designer handbags has an empirical and detrimental effect on the value of the brand, which is IP, to wit, a trademark. The sellers of the counterfeit goods are stealing from the brand, and they are thieves.

    > My point (and I believe I've said this multiple times
    > by now) is that by NOT artificially limiting the
    > resource, the laborer will have MORE opportunities
    > to exploit that labor. You insist that they will
    > have fewer, which is why you need the gov't to step
    > in and protect. There is no historical evidence
    > that I know of that supports your position.

    This is so wrong on so many levels that I don't know where to begin. I'll be quick and dirty rather than verbose and precise.
    1. The government does not artificially limit the resource, but owner controls the availability of the resource.
    2. Generally, the more limited the supply the greater the demand of the resource, giving away the product decreases the demand rather than increasing the demand.
    3. Historical evidence abounds if you look at the history of inventions that have reverted to the public domain, as Jefferson himself implied in your quotation.
    4. Control of the supply of the product lies with the owner, not the government.

    > So you are incorrect to imply that my position is that
    > you do not deserve to "gain some return from [your]
    > work." I am saying the opposite. I am saying that
    > by ignoring artificial limitations you have MORE
    > opportunities to gain return from your work, and
    > the market will help highlight those opportunities.

    Which means that the ~owner~ controls the supply of the product, not the government. All the IP legel regime goes is grant the ~owner~ property rights in the product of his creative imagination. If an artist or inventer thinks his interests are better served by limiting distribution of a product, he or she will do so, not the government.

    > So the fundamental misunderstanding is in your belief
    > that in taking away artificial scarcity the right
    > to profit from your work is diminished. It is not. It
    > is enhanced.

    This is the result of the management of the property by the owner. Besides which, in the context of digitally distributed goods, like songs and movies, there is no physical constraint to the supply, as there would be for the production of film, tape, vinyl, etc. Digital distribution of a song without charge does not deprive the owner of any physical property interest but deprives him of the intangible thingy of its commercial value. Why buy the milk when you can get it for free?

    I think that you are beginning to see the implication of your position that IP is not 'property.' If it isn't property, then we cannot preserve to the artist or inventor the right to income from the thingy. In essence, what this does is bifurcate the property domain into tangible property, which the law protects, and intangible property, which (you believe) the law should not protect. This is, in a word, unjust exploitation of the creative energies of our intellectual workers.

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