Friday, March 04, 2005

Over on LFA... Intellectual Property!

I can't resist wading into an argument over on Libertarians for America on copyright issues, because I've been thinking about this too much lately. Namely, how libertarian philosophies think about intellectual copyright problems. I’m going to do some drastic simplification here, but I don’t think it generates false results.

Copyright issues are, among many other problems, a contract issue. 1. The media companies want to develop and sell content that can only be used by the person they are selling to. 2. We know from revealed preference (ie, what people did in the day when copying was hard), that people would certainly buy such things. 3. We can also bet that if there was no way to keep IP from spreading, media companies wouldn’t develop or sell the content (at least like they do now). And we know technology is rapidly approaching that point.

Now there are many different types of libertarians. I’ve heard them described as 10 radicals sitting in a room each having different fantasies about what a libertarian utopia would look like. They are motivated by different goals. Some (anti-gov) just feel that the government is innately inefficient and can’t solve any problems without making things worse. Some (Coase) believes the market is the best, and the ideal world is a Coase theorem where everything is solved by people making contracts with eachother, which have 0-cost enforceability. Both these guys believe in the “free market”, but clearly in different ways. (Some think Lincoln was the greatest tyrant of the hemisphere, while others think Bush is the greatest president of modern times because he’s so much like Lincoln. Clearly opinions vary.)

Well an anti-gov libertarian would see pretty quickly that IP contracts can’t be enforced in any way except government intervention. And as it gets easier and easier to covertly violate IP laws, the government intervention to keep this industry alive at all, becomes more and intrusive. The solution is to make sure the government stays out of it altogether, and watch as copyright dies.

A Coase libertarian would feel the opposite. In a free market people definitely want to make these deals, and it’s just a matter of making someone who buys media stick to the contract of not distributing it. If the government can enforce such contracts for less cost than the benefit we get from such media’s existence (and given the economic size of the media industry, that is not hard to believe), then they should do so. Ideally we’ll eventually get better and more private ways of contract enforcement, but that is just a technocratic matter, and not an ideological opposition to copyright laws at all.

So um, finding out why you are libertarian (and Dev I suspect is a Coase libertarian), is important in determining these issues.

(Oh, and no, I do not think that if IP law didn’t exist, things would be fine as those who produce IP could just travel the road and sell merchandise and appearances. They can do that if they want to, and clearly some do, but there’s also a lot of economic value being generated by people who reject that choice.)


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