Copyright law is generally justified under three theories.1
The first is the utilitarian, or consequentialist, basis. Society benefits from the production of creative works. But in the absence of legal protection, creative production tends to be inefficient since costs of creation are high while costs of copying and distribution are low.
The second form of copyright justification is based on moral rights or personality claims. This theory embraces the view that expressive works are the extension of one’s self and thus are deserving of protection because of an individual’s inherent dignity.2
The final theory owes its origins primarily to the work of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. Here, the justification of copyright stems from the right of an individual to control the fruits of his labor.
Generally speaking, Anglo-American copyright law adheres more closely to a utilitarian system while Continental legal systems start with a moral rights basis — though there is plenty of overlap in the two systems. The Lockean justification, however, has largely fallen out of favor among academics and policy makers.
But as legal professor Adam Mossoff explains in his recent article Saving Locke from Marx: The Labor Theory of Value in Intellectual Property Theory, Locke’s justification has been “relegated to the dustbin” of history not because it is faulty, but because it has been misunderstood. As Mossoff puts it, “Locke’s labor theory of value has suffered much at the hands of contemporary philosophers.”
According to the abstract:
The labor theory of value is fundamental to John Locke’s justification for property rights, but philosopher Edwin Hettinger argued in an oft-cited article that it fails to justify intellectual property rights. In making this critique, though, Hettinger redefined Locke’s theory into a theory about proportional physical labor creating economic value, just as Robert Nozick, G.A. Cohen and other philosophers have done. In response to this strawman attack, this article describes Locke’s labor theory of value and how Locke himself applied it to intellectual property rights. It does so by analyzing the actual text of the Second Treatise, including many forgotten or neglected sections, and by integrating Locke’s property theory within the context of his natural law ethical theory, as presented in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and in other works. In its proper context, Locke’s concept of labor refers to production, which is both an intellectual and physical activity. His concept of value refers to what serves the flourishing life of a rational being, which is a conception of the good that is more robust than merely physical status or economic wealth. Locke’s own text and philosophical arguments answer the absurdities imposed on him by Hettinger, Nozick, Cohen and others. Even more important, understanding his labor theory of value explains why Locke expressly approves of inventions in his property theory and why he explicitly argues that authors have property rights (copyrights) in their writings, which are arguments that are seemingly lost on his modern critics.
For non-philosophers, like myself, the writing may at times be dense, but it is no less important and well worth a read. As Mossoff points out, the Lockean view of copyright was prevalent in the US during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Continental Congress resolution to the States to pass copyright legislation was inspired in part by lobbying from author Joel Barlow. His 1783 letter to the Congress reads in part:
There is certainly no kind of property, in the nature of things, so much his own, as the works which a person originates from his own creative imagination: And when he has spent great part of his life in study, wasted his time, his fortune & perhaps his health in improving his knowledge & correcting his taste, it is a principle of natural justice that he should be entitled to the profits arising from the sale of his works as a compensation for his labor in producing them, & his risque of reputation in offering them to the Public.
Twelve of the thirteen existing states passed legislation following the resolution, with the majority of them explicitly espousing the principle that authors are entitled to the value of their labor.
Labor and Value
Since that time, legal scholars and philosophers have eroded this prevalent view. Mossoff explains why. John Locke, the Founding Fathers, and early American jurists weren’t laboring (pardon the pun) under a false assumption; it is the legal scholars and philosophers who are mistaken, misconstruing Locke’s notion of labor with only physical labor and his notion of value with only economic value.
According to Mossoff:
[Locke's] concept of labor refers to production, which has intellectual as well as physical characteristics, and his concept of value serves his moral ideal of human flourishing, which is a conception of the good that is more robust than merely physical status or economic wealth.
The Feist Fallacy
This erosion in Locke’s theory was bolstered by the US Supreme Court’s 1991 decision in Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service. There, the Court heard a dispute between two competing publishers of telephone books, with one accused of copying the directory listings of the other. The Court held that the “sweat of the brow” doctrine did not extend copyright protection to factual information — the original publisher of the telephone directory could not claim copyright protection over its collection of telephone numbers merely because it had expended labor compiling them.
Mossoff points out that “intellectual property scholars widely believe that Feist represents an unequivocal rejection of Locke’s labor theory of property in copyright law.” Though not mentioned in the article, noted copyright scholar William Patry, in his 2008 book Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, goes so far as to say the Court rejected the “labor basis for copyright” as unconstitutional.3 Yet the Court explicitly approved of Locke’s theory, says Mossoff. The “sweat of the brow” doctrine relies solely on the physical labor expended in creation, so when one realizes that Locke was not talking solely of physical labor, one realizes the mistake scholars have made.
Mossoff stops short of endorsing Locke’s justification of intellectual property. As he notes:
This article describes Locke’s argument for his labor theory of value in order to expose the strawman attack on his property theory by contemporary philosophers, especially within intellectual property theory, but it does not purport to justify his labor theory of value. This justification, which raises difficult questions about the foundations of value theory, such as whether values are objective, subjective, or intrinsic, must be left for another day.
It will be interesting to see if scholars build upon Mossoff’s work, but my hope is that Locke’s labor theory regains its stature among the other justifications for copyright. We live in a global, pluralistic society, and legal doctrines, including copyright law, should enshrine pluralistic justifications. Just because someone — whether an individual or a multi-billion dollar corporation — can exploit the value of someone else’s labor doesn’t make the fact that they shoulda foregone conclusion. In Locke’s words, man is a “proprietor of his own person”, and because of this, as Mossoff interprets Locke, “value-creating, productive labor is a moral activity that creates in the laborer a moral claim to the products of his labor.” These principles have served society well, and no technological innovation can render them obsolete.
- Moore, Adam, “Intellectual Property“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.); see also the Wikipedia entry on Justifications for copyright. [↩]
- As with the utilitarian justification of copyright, rights-based theories are not static. Recent work by Abraham Drassinower, for example, presents a rights-based justification of copyright that conceives works as communicative acts. [↩]
- Pg. 65. [↩]