Friday, January 20, 2012

Copyrights and patents are intrusive government regulations

They are monopolies that restrict the rights of businesses to make and sell certain products. What's more, they're built around non-rival goods with origins that are often difficult to trace (since virtually all 'creative' works are derived from other earlier ones).

This doesn't mean intellectual property laws are bad. They aren't. Society could not function well without them. What this does mean is that these laws have a cost. They distort markets, raise prices, divert resources from productive areas to legal departments and inhibit creative destruction and the founding of new businesses. We have to balance these costs against the social benefits of encouraging creation and dissemination.

Recently, though, we've lost sight of that need for balance, in no small part because those costs are born by consumers and small companies that lack the wherewithal for PR and lobbying. In the area of copyrights (patents are a subject for another day), we've allowed ludicrous extensions, let lawyers grab works from the public domain, retroactively granted copyrights to works whose creators have been dead for decades, and tried to greatly restrict the concept of fair use.

It's important to remember that the very notion of owning an idea is a useful absurdity. Ideas are intangible and indistinct with no real demarcation from other ideas. It is tremendously useful for a society to encourage creativity and give creators a protected period to disseminate their works, but if we start thinking of protecting intellectual property as an end to itself, all we have left is the absurdity.

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