Intellectual property rights are monopoly rights that grant their holders the temporary privilege for the exclusive exploitation of the income rights from cultural expressions and inventions. There must be good reasons for a society to grant such privileges to some of its individuals, and therefore the proponents of these rights have provided three widely accepted justifications to defend the interwoven global intellectual property rights regime we have in place today.

To argue for the abolition of intellectual property rights we have to challenge all three justifications. Therefore we have discussed whether a creator or inventor can be considered as the owner of an expression or an innovation because he is the individual who created or invented something. We have seen that two components are usually mentioned as justifications for such individual ownership. First, the natural law based justification which, based on self-ownership and Lockean appropriation theories, states that the creator is the owner of his creation because he has put his own labour into his work. In analysing the property concept with John Christman’s distinction between control and income rights, we have seen that the amount of labour one puts into a product is not connected to the surplus one may generate on a market. This does not mean that a seller on a market has not merited his profit, but one cannot say that he deserves it because of his labour. And we have also discussed that control rights do not make much sense for abstract objects, as they are not scarce and do not diminish or lose value when they are used.

Second, the justification by personality rights, which is on one hand based on the concept from Immanuel Kant that expressions are extensions of one’s personality, and on the other hand that ideas are owned by the self-owner like his talents, skills or body parts are owned by him. With the help of Richard Dawkins’ concept of the meme and Daniel Dennett’s multiple drafts model, we have seen that it may be possible that we as individuals are not active agents in the creative process but rather hosts for the replication of memes, which create, through variation, selection and heredity, the building blocks for the cultural evolution we can witness when we observe the development of cultural expressions. Ludwik Fleck’s concept of the thought collective was another theoretical framework for a discussion of the interpersonal aspects of creative processes. All in all, we have seen that it is far from evident that an individual can be considered as the owner of the ideas and expressions which emerge from his brain and therefore the natural law and personality-based justifications are contested.

Utilitarians would assert that, even if we accept that the creative process is a collective process it is still useful to grant these monopoly rights to creators and inventors, as with these incentives more innovation would happen than without, which is better for all and better for the worst off. I have replied to this important argument, and we have seen that different comparative economic studies have revealed that there is probably more innovation in societies without intellectual property law compared to societies with such laws in place.

We have also seen that for free market proponents monopoly rights are hardly to be justified, as they are based on state interference, and that even egalitarians could subscribe to the abolition of intellectual property rights, as they do not contribute to more equality.

There are many good reasons to question the justifications for intellectual property rights and therefore it is time to start the political discussion about the abolition of these rights to create a world in which intellectual property is common property.


Icon for the Public Domain license

This work (Intellectual Property Is Common Property by Andreas Von Gunten) is free of known copyright restrictions.