The notion of property is, from the point of view of rights, a rather peripheral issue. Owning property is one of the innumerable actions that a human being can perform in the course of his life. But, because of statist rhetoric against the economy, it has taken a central role in politics. Now statist discourse, from both the right and left wing, has accepted the myth that the government should redistribute resources according to a “common good” or “greater plan”, and only argue about how we should do this.
This outlook, of course, must be rejected wholesale. As we know, the very notion of a “common good” is a meaningless code-word, and government coercion necessarily has a negative effect on the economy. But what most commentators are also missing is that there is no clear distinction between the economic domain and the social domain, and eliminating economic freedom means also eliminating social freedom.
To understand this, it will suffice to take any market you can think of, say, transport. Suppose that the government monopolizes transport, so it can dictate where people can go and how they can do it (granted, we are already pretty close to that). What are we then to make of our rights to move to whatever place we desire, to travel, and even to assemble ? All these social freedoms would be gone, replaced by state-based decision-making – that is to say, politicians first, friends of the party second, the people last.
This intimate relation between economy and society can be understood in terms of resources. Resources are necessary both for economic trade and societal trade – the former being more concerned with their flow while the latter is more concerned with their usage. Laws which seek to restrict the flow of resources necessarily change the way people can use them, and laws which seek to restrict our usage of resources necessarily change the way they flow. A stark example of the latter is the drug prohibition and its creation of violent black markets.
Intellectual property is no exception. Many commentators, including some usually dedicated to civil liberties, consider the notion of intellectual property as an attack against freedom. This could be seen as validated by how it is handled today by the state, who sees it as an opportunity to cater to corporative interest groups – corporatism.
The case of the legal attacks against Napster is a good example of this perversion. As a free service of music distribution, it was considered an enemy by record companies because people passed around songs without paying. Leaving aside the question of whether such services really lower the profits of record companies or not in the long run, a simple deconstruction of the claims is sufficient to ascertain their absurdity. Napster, as a simple distribution network, is not a tool of illegality. People who copy music and introduce it into Napster are committing a crime. It is not illegal to pass information around. But Napster was a convenient target because it is the system’s weak link : take it down and you take down the entire system.
A more recent example is the absurd proposition, being studied by the US government, that any form of digital copyright infringement should be punishable by the destruction of your computer ! Such a destructive spirit could only come from a politician, and definitively enters into the category of disproportionate punishment. Of course, the music lobby is heavily involved in the issue.
We can generalize these cases without fear. Computers and the Internet are social tools, even though they are highly dependent on intellectual property. Thus, the larger this property base becomes, the more dangerous it becomes for the freedom of those inhabiting the tool.
My examples above should not be construed as an apology for intellectual anarchy. The way that the notion of intellectual property is manipulated by the state and its friends is the problem, not the notion of intellectual property itself. Violent corporatism is not an argument against capitalism.
The notion of property exists because people, through work (in a general sense), change nature to produce objects useful to human life. The action of an individual desiring to keep that property in order to further his own life is part of the freedom of action. Intellectual property is the application of this concept to the ideological realm. The products of our mind are as tangible and worthy, if not more so, than a chair or a computer. Indeed, the chair and the computer themselves could not exist without a gigantic mass of concepts and ideas. As our societies advance towards technological transcendence, we cannot ignore intellectual property, nor misuse its primacy for corporatist interests.