Everything is a remix. Information is non-rivalrous. Intellectual works are non-excludable. Copying doesn’t deprive a creator of anything.
Spend enough time reading about or discussing copyright online and you’re bound to have become familiar with statements like these. The increasing popularity of copyright with the general public has brought more attention to these arguments — but don’t make the mistake that these are new arguments.
Case in point: The Law of Intellectual Property; or An Essay on the Right of Authors and Inventors to a Perpetual Property in their Ideas, a book that devotes considerable time repudiating fifteen objections that are strikingly similar to ones made today. The book, however, was written over 150 years ago.
The author, Lysander Spooner, was an American anarchist, abolitionist, and legal theorist who lived from 1808 to 1887. The Law of Intellectual Property; or An Essay on the Right of Authors and Inventors to a Perpetual Property in their Ideas was published in 1855 and considered one of the most extensive defenses of intellectual property as a natural right ever penned — it is also one of the earliest uses of the term “intellectual property.”1
The entire volume is too long to post here but well worth a read.2 Instead, I’d like to highlight a few key passages.
Spooner begins with a discussion of the concepts of wealth and property. His assertion that man has a natural right to property in his ideas is similar to Locke’s labor theory of property.3 This is followed by Spooner’s response to fifteen common objections. Though he focuses on ideas, in the context of inventors and patent law, the discussion is generally just as applicable to copyright law and its protection of original expression of ideas as well.
First up is the charge that there can be no property right in ideas because they are incorporeal, or intangible. Spooner concludes:
The right of property being incorporeal, and being itself a subject of property, it demonstrates that the right of property may attach to still other incorporeal things; for it would be plainly absurd to say, that there could be an incorporeal right of property to a corporeal thing, but could be no incorporeal right of property to an incorporeal thing. Clearly an incorporeal right of property could attach to an incorporeal thing—a thing of its own nature—as easily as to a corporeal thing, a thing of a different nature from its own. The attachment of this incorporeal right of property, to a corporeal thing, is not a phenomenon visible by the eye, nor tangible by the hand. It is perceptible only by the mind. And the mind can as easily perceive the same attachment to an incorporeal thing, as to a corporeal one.
The fifth objection Spooner addresses would today be described as the “everything is a remix” objection:
… That the course of events, and the general progress of knowledge, science, and art, suggest, point to, contribute to, and aid the production of, certain inventions; and that it would therefore be wrong to give to a man an exclusive and perpetual property, in a device, or idea, which is not the unaided production of his own powers; but which so many circumstances, external to himself, have contributed and aided to bring forth. …
The sum of this argument, therefore, is, that authors and inventors have the benefit of all the knowledge that has come down to us, to aid them in producing their own writings and discoveries; and therefore they should have no right of property in their writings and discoveries.
If this objection be sound, against the rights of authors and inventors to their intellectual productions, then it will follow that other men have no right of property in any of those corporeal things, which the knowledge, that has come down to us, has enabled them to produce, or acquire. The argument is clearly as applicable to this case as the other.
It is no doubt true, that the course of events, and the general progress of knowledge, science, and art, do suggest, point to, contribute to, and aid the productions of, many, possibly all, inventions. But it is equally true that the course of events, and the general progress of knowledge, science, and art, suggest, point to, contribute to, and aid the production and acquisition of, all kinds of corporeal property. But that is no reason why corporeal things should not be the property of those, who have produced or acquired them. Yet the argument is equally strong against the right of property in corporeal things, as in intellectual productions. If, because authors and inventors, in producing their writings and discoveries, had the advantage of the course of events, and the general progress of knowledge, in their favor, they are to be denied the right of property in the fruits of their labors, then every other man, who has the course of events, and the progress of knowledge, science, and art in his favor, (and what man has not?) should, on the same principle, be denied all ownership of the fruits of his labor—whether those fruits be the agricultural wealth he has produced, by the aid of the ploughs, and hoes, and chains, and harrows, and shovels, which had been invented, and the agricultural knowledge which had been acquired, before his time; or whether they be the houses or ships he has built, through the aid of the axes, and saws, and planes, and hammers, which had been devised, and the mechanical knowledge and skill that had been acquired, before he was born.
Under the ninth objection, Spooner addresses the equivocating argument against copyright — sure, creators should be compensated for their work, just not through legal protection of intellectual property:
This view of the case, it will be seen, denies to the inventor all exclusive right of property in his invention. It asserts that the invention really belongs to the public, and not to himself. And it only advocates the morality and equity of allowing him such compensation for his time and labor as is reasonable. And it maintains that such compensation should be determined, in some measure at least, by the compensation which other men than inventors obtain for their time and labor. And this is the view on which patent laws generally are founded.
The objection to this theory is, that it strikes at all rights of property whatsoever, by denying a man’s right to the products of his labor. It asserts that government has the right, at its own discretion, to take from any man the fruits of his labor, giving him in return such compensation only, for his labor, as the government deems reasonable. …
Those, who talk about the justice of the government’s allowing an inventor reasonable compensation for his labor, talk as if the government had employed the inventor to labor for it for wages—the government taking the risk whether he invented any thing of value, or not. In such a case, the government would be entitled to the invention, on paying the inventor his stipulated, or reasonable, wages. But the government does not employ an inventor to invent a steamboat, or a telegraph. He invents it while laboring on his own account. If he succeed, therefore, the whole fruits of his labor are rightfully his; if he fail, he bears the loss. He never calls upon the government to pay him for his labor that was unsuccessful; and the government never yet undertook to pay for the labor of the hundreds and thousands of unfortunate men, who attempted inventions, and failed. With what force, then, can it claim to seize the fruits of their successful labor, leaving them only what it pleases to call a reasonable compensation, or reasonable wages, for their labor? If the government were to do thus towards other men generally than inventors, there would be a revolution instantly. Such a government would be universally regarded as the most audacious and monstrous of tyrannics.
On the “non-rivalrous” nature of intellectual property:
It is said that ideas are unlike corporeal commodities in this respect, namely, that a corporeal commodity cannot be completely and fully possessed and used by two persons at once, without collision between them; and that it must therefore necessarily be recognized as the property of one only, in order that it may be possessed and used in peace; but that an idea may be completely and fully possessed and used by many persons at once, without collision with each other; and therefore no one should be allowed to monopolize it. …
On this principle a man has a right to take possession of, and freely use, any thing and every thing he sees and desires, which other men may have produced by their labor—provided he can do it without coming in collision with, or committing any violence upon, the persons of other men.
This is the principle, and the only principle, which the objection offers, as a rule for the government of the conduct of mankind towards each other, in the possession and use of material commodities. And it seriously does offer this principle, as a substitute for the right of individual and exclusive property, in the products and acquisitions of individual labor. The principle, thus offered, is really communism, and nothing else.
If this principle be a sound one, in regard to material commodities, it is undoubtedly equally sound in relation to ideas. But if it be preposterous and monstrous, in reference to material commodities, it is equally preposterous and monstrous in relation to ideas; for, if applied to ideas, it as effectually denies the right of exclusive property in the products of one’s labor, as it would if applied to material commodities.
It is plain that the principle of the objection would apply, just as strongly, against any right of exclusive property in corporeal commodities, as it does against a right of exclusive property in ideas; because, 1st, many corporeal commodities, as roads, canals, railroad cars, bathing places, churches, theatres, &c., can be used by many persons at once, without collision with each other; and, 2d, all those commodities—as axes and hammers, for example—which can be used only by one person at a time without collision, may nevertheless be used by different persons at different times without collision. Now, if it be a true principle, that labor and production give no exclusive right of property, and that every commodity, by whomsoever produced, should, without the consent of the producer, be made to serve as many persons as it can, without bringing them in collision with each other, that principle as clearly requires that a hammer should be free to different persons at different times, and that a road, or canal should be free to as many persons at once, as can use it without collision, as it does that an idea should be free to as many persons at once as choose to use it.
The rest of the objections are just as familiar to modern audiences. Spooner rebuts the Jeffersonian-inspired argument against intellectual property (“that his giving knowledge to other men is only lighting their candles by his, thereby giving them the benefit of light, without any loss of light to himself; and that therefore he should not be allowed any exclusive property in his ideas”), the argument that intellectual property belongs to society instead of creators, and the argument that intellectual property is invalid because it is nonexcludable.
A modern update to The Law of Intellectual Property would perhaps only need to add one additional objection: the idea that copyright only “made sense” in a world without digital technology and global communication networks, but those technologies have somehow rendered the law’s foundations absurd. As the book illustrates, however, for as much as technology has advanced, arguments against securing the exclusive rights of creators have stayed remarkably the same.
- Randy E. Barnett, “Spooner, Lysander“, The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law, pg. 509 (2009). [↩]
- The work is labelled as “volume 1″ with indications of what topics Spooner planned to discuss in volume 2. However, Spooner never completed the second volume. [↩]
- See Steve J. Shone, Lysander Spooner: American Anarchist, pp. 11-13 (2010). [↩]