Land and Ideas as Property.

Land and Ideas as Property.

In my previous articles on copyright I have shown that the objection urged by my opponents was not really an objection to property in ideas, but to property in certain ideas and in certain cases. I am now prepared to show that the objection is totally irrational and unsound, and that no believer in equal liberty can consistently seek to profit by it. The man who makes a discovery, it is argued, thereby prevents all other men from making the same discovery. Because one man [as Spooner states the objection] happens to be the first inventor, is no reason why he should have an exclusive and perpetual property in a device or idea which would have been brought forth, before a very long time, by some other mind, if it had not been done by him. Now, while Spooner meets this argument, he does so in a way which is not entirely satisfactory. I will first give his answer, and then amend and fortify it.

Admitting, he says, for the sake of the argument, that B would have produced a certain idea, if A had not done it before him, the objection is of no more weight in the case of intellectual property than in the case of material property. If A had not taken possession of a certain tract of wild land and converted it into a farm, some one would have come after him and done it. Indeed, the objection, if valid, destroys the Anarchistic position that occupancy and use constitute a perfect title to land. The man who settles on a piece of land thereby prevents all other men from settling on that piece of land. And since it is considered fair and just to recognize the first comer’s title and direct the others to unoccupied lands, it is clearly fair and just to recognize the first discoverer’s title to his idea and tell the other that he is at liberty to go and discover new ideas, the field being unlimited and vacant. Since the occupying owner is entitled, not merely to an arbitrary amount of wages for his labor in cultivating the land, but to the whole product yielded by his lot, how can it be fairly and logically claimed that an author is entitled only to reasonable remuneration, and not to the whole amount obtainable by exchange in the open market?

Spooner, to be sure, did not advocate occupying ownership as a title to land. In a certain sense, he defended land monopoly. It may, therefore, be argued that a true vacant lander cannot accept his view, but must hold that, as in the matter of land we only allow a man to appropriate as much as he needs for his own use and personally occupies, so in the matter of ideas we should only recognize the right of the author to appropriate as much of his wealth as he needs and can dispose of through exchange without restricting competition. Of course, practically this would result in depriving the author of every advantage save that which he might derive from studying his own book after its publication. His competitors can easily drive him out by underselling him, since they have only to cover the expenses of publication and earn average wages, while his price must include compensation for the capital and labor spent during the years of preparation and research and experimentation. But this consideration need not detain us, the vacant-lander professing anxiety to secure the author equitable remuneration for his labor in some way or other. Theoretically, the claim is that the author enjoys the same rights in his sphere that the occupying owner of land is secured in his; and the claim, it must be confessed, is good. There is a flaw in the argument, however, and it is here: it is assumed, without inquiry and without reason, that the same natural obstacles and difficulties which, in the case of land, constrain us to rest satisfied with the occupying ownership plan as the nearest approximation to equal liberty possible, exert and operate in the realm of ideas and abstract truths, and necessitate the same compromises. But the truth is that there is absolutely no reason for applying the principle of occupying ownership to the sphere of ideas. In the ownership and control of ideas equal liberty neither requires nor countenances any restrictions. So infinite is the field of intellectual truth and research that the recognition of an author’s exclusive and perpetual property in his ideas and discoveries can in no wise tend to limit the opportunities of any other man. To quote Spooner again: The first man having done his work, the second man has no need to do it, but is left free to perform some other labor, of which he will enjoy the fruits, in the same way that the first enjoys the fruits of his labor. Where, then, is the injustice? Even if we assume, then, that an author or inventor does, by the mere fact of publishing his discovery or invention, actually deprive everybody of the liberty and opportunity to originate the same thing or device, we do not find that anybody has ground for complaining or protesting against recognizing the author’s title to absolute property in his discovery. You cannot discover the same thing, we may justly say to the objector, but the field is unlimited and you can still enrich yourself and us by other discoveries. Go, dig, the mine is inexhaustible, and you have no excuse whatever for attempting to share the benefits of my discovery against my will. There is work enough and room enough for all of us.

Inasmuch as I have been reproached for my (alleged) habit of reiterating arguments upon paper with the greatest possible frequency and volume, presumably to the injury and disgust of those patient sufferers whose space I abuse, I [5] refrain here from elaborating and elucidating this new important point. Unless the champions of communism in ideas hasten to refute this argument, I shall consider the case in favor of property in the produce of the brain as firmly and triumphantly established as the case in favor of so-called material property.

V. Y.