The Objection to Property in Ideas.

The Objection to Property in Ideas.

Referring to Mr. Tucker’s comments on my article in the last issue, no very extended remarks seem to be necessary in reply.

It is, perhaps, natural for Mr. Tucker to retort that, to those who read Tak Kak understandingly, something more than assertions is revealed in his opposition to property in ideas. Nevertheless the (absurd) implication that I am either unwilling or unable to do justice to Tak Kak’s argumentation has not the slightest tendency to wound my amour propre, and I will content myself with the simple statement that it is not my habit to ignore weighty considerations or telling points advanced by my opponents. Without wishing to be dramatic or needlessly sober, I may yet say that, in the pending controversy, as in others, I am not interested in the abstract logical truth alone, and that I could not, even if I would, resort to any dishonorable trickery. Tak Kak, I repeat, has made no argument to show the inconsistency alleged to subsist between property in ideas and equal liberty. It may be impolitic to say so,—though I can’t see why,—but I fear that, with the exception of Mr. Lloyd, none of the participants in this battle anywhere manifested a decided disposition to be guardedly politic.

In defending himself against the charge of question-begging, Mr. Tucker leaps from the frying pan into the fire. He explains that, in speaking of the world’s literary treasure, he meant simply treasures in possession of the world. Though I cannot truthfully claim to know the difference between possession and ownership (and Mr. Tucker’s confidence here is rather amusing, seeing that volumes have been written to define these terms and the end is not yet), nevertheless I may, in a general way, grant the reality of the distinction. The assumption that the world possesses the treasures granted, Mr. Tucker argues that property in ideas does not make for happiness, since it might lead to dispossessing the world of some of its treasures. But here too we have a plain case of question-begging. The assumption that the possession of the treasures makes for the world’s happiness is to beg the question.

That the soundness of an argument is in any way dependent on the physical power or skill which enables the author to enforce it, is surprising news to me. The thief, to prove that the possession of the stolen coat makes for his happiness, has to prove that stealing is compatible with equal liberty,—that, and nothing more.

I do not think that Mr. Tucker correctly estimates the conditions of happiness when he affirms that the destruction of Spencer’s works would amount to a great social calamity. But I do not care to argue this point. Each must think it out for himself. It is true that a book does not exist, in a vital sense, if it is not actively in the market; but there is an immense difference, all the same, between total destruction and existence even in a non-vital sense. Even total destruction would not be a great social calamity, much less can partial destruction be so described.

Mr. Tucker objects to my interpolation of the parenthetical clause, or, at all events cripple, in reproducing Mr. Bilgram’s statement respecting the effect of denial of property in ideas. This interpolation he deems a sufficient ground for a charge of inaccuracy and unfairness. But I am perfectly sure that the qualification was not repugnant to Mr. Bilgram’s real meaning. Mr. Tucker is much too literal in his interpretations of his opponents expressions. Mr. Bilgram does not think, I am convinced, that non-recognition of property in ideas would really and absolutely destroy literature. Mr. Bilgram knows that, copyright or no copyright, reformers would continue to write, and that exceptionally wealthy men of science would publish the fruits of their leisurely studies. But that would not be literature in any vital sense. Spencer has himself related the story of his struggles, and it is pretty plain that in the utter absence of copyright Spencer’s works would never have seen the light. Before Mr. Tucker pushes his charge of unfairness, let him interrogate Mr. Bilgram and ascertain which of us has grasped his real meaning.

Now I come to the most important part of Mr. Tucker’s reply. The first thing to be noted concerning it is that Mr. Tucker seems still confused as to the cause of our present quarrel. I have not measured the ground disputed in the battle over property in ideas, and am not interested in the practical successes or failures of authors. I am discussing the question of copyright in the abstract, and contend for property in ideas within limits sanctioned by equal liberty. I am prepared to make enormous admissions in the most cheerful manner, provided it is clearly shown that equal liberty necessitates them. It is true that, prior to the discovery by Mr. Tucker of the sole apparently rational objection to universal property in ideas, I contended for universality; but the introduction of the settler appeared to justify an admission,—whether enormous or not, I cared not,—which accordingly I hastened to make. I may yet decide to withdraw the admission; for the present, I am satisfied to let it stand, frankly acknowledging the seeming reasonableness of Mr. Tucker’s objection—as far as it may be reasonably applied. But Mr. Tucker’s immense delight with his discovery makes him blind to its true proportions and causes him to claim for it a significance which the impartial and logical bystander must refuse to attribute it. No amount of irony and ridicule and dust can submerge and efface the important distinction which I drew between those cases where men find themselves deprived of the right to authorship and those where men voluntarily and deliberately part with that right. Mr. Tucker chooses to put a conveniently literal construction upon my expressions, goes out of his way and stops to study, and then proceeds to draw distinctions some of which are indeed childish in the extreme. But I cannot take notice of such unjustifiable distinctions. The reader who realizes that the only objection Mr. Tucker has been able to put forward against property in ideas is that the man who discovers something thereby takes away the liberty of others to discover the same thing, may be depended on to perceive that this objection cannot be applied, for instance, to the case of a man who purchases a book and reads it with the intention of learning the new truths it contains. In other words, he will clearly see that the objection is inadequate as an argument against all property in ideas, and he will politely refuse to accept Mr. Tucker’s view on the matter of patent and copyright. As for the simple, every-day liberty to read books, there is no such right in existence. If men had the right to read books, they would not be obliged to pay for them. Men have the right to exchange their commodities or services against the commodities of such parties as may be willing to deal with them. When a man purchases a commodity, he is at liberty to use it in any way consistent with equal liberty. A man who has bought a book has the right to read it, lend it, burn it, in short put it to any use which does not jeopardize the rights of his fellows. Whether he may, consistently with equal liberty, multiply copies of the book and sell them, is the question at issue.

But my distinction makes property in ideas begin at an uncertain degree of complexity or at an uncertain degree of concealment! Well, what of it? I am discussing the question in the abstract, and, finding a distinction to exist, I cannot but call attention to it. Let Mr. Tucker advance an objection which should cover the whole ground, if he can. It is not my fault that his objection cannot be applied to all cases. Surely Mr. Tucker does not mean to say that my distinction cannot be real because it makes property in ideas begin at an uncertain degree of complexity or concealment. Mr. Tucker has repeatedly admitted that it is impossible to define the limits of liberty and the nature of invasion, that we cannot draw a hard and fast line between the field of legitimate activities and the field of activities constituting infringements of equal liberty. From the fact that it is impossible to determine whether certain acts are invasive or not, it surely does not follow that we must either pronounce all acts legitimate or hold them all equally illegitimate. We do not know just where invasion begins, nevertheless there is such a thing as invasion. Similarly, there is a distinction between ideas properly classed as private property and ideas properly classed as public property,—that is, if Mr. Tucker’s objection to universal property in ideas be really strong and valid as far as it goes.

The fact that the distinction involves questions of detail which no jury could intelligently decide in accordance with the principle of equal liberty tells as much against Mr. Tucker’s position as it does against mine. Because it would be difficult to decide questions arising under the distinction, says Mr. Tucker, let us once for all declare against property in ideas. With equal propriety, or impropriety, I might say that, in view of the practical difficulties, the best course is to recognize property in all ideas and disregard that abstract wight to authorship for which Mr. Tucker contends.

I have not condemned Mr. Tucker or Tak Kak for empiricism. So long as they argue against property in ideas from the standpoint of equal liberty, no such condemnation can justly be administered. I simply protest against the needless burdening of the argument with empirical observations which we all must hold to be inconsequential. Mr. Tucker has not the faintest shadow of an excuse for accusing me of empiricism, for I have all along held to the principle of equal liberty.

Mr. Tucker’s reference to my article in the last issue as the fifth and longest of a series of articles the third of which was the probably final one betrays irritation; is he tired of this controversy? For my part, I see no reason for not continuing it until one or the other side admits that it can advance nothing more that is new or strong.

V. Y.

[Whether or not I have anything more to advance that is new or strong is a question that will not be settled until occasion arises for such advancement. No such occasion is presented by Mr. Yarros’s article, which, far from advancing anything new or strong, is [4] simply a reiteration of the author’s previously-exposed weaknesses, coupled with some fresh inaccuracies, not to say unfairnesses, in the statement of my position, which any intelligent reader can detect by carefully comparing my last article with Mr. Yarros’s rejoinder. It is unprofitable to discuss longer with an opponent who has become so inexact that he refuses to allow literal construction of words which he uses, not in metaphor, not in embellishment, not in any turn of rhetoric, but in a central sentence written to establish the pivot of his position. It is also unprofitable, except as it develops the faculty of patience and the muscles of the hand and the wrist, to engage in a struggle for supremacy in the art of reiterating arguments upon paper with the greatest possible frequency and volume. This is an accomplishment in which I prefer to admit my inferiority at once. The discussion of property in ideas between Mr. Yarros and myself is now closed. My opponent has had the last word, and he is welcome to it. I do not think that copyright has ever been defended more ably or more stubbornly. In its defence Mr. Yarros has marshalled every consideration that could be urged with any show of reason, besides several to which reason gives no color at all. If he has failed,—and, so far as I know it, such is the nearly unanimous verdict of the readers of Liberty,—the fault is not with the champion, but with his hopeless cause. Editor Liberty.]