Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ideas and Candles

For me, understanding all the nuances behind the idea of copyright has been somewhat difficult and confusing. So the article in Issue 16 of The Voluntaryist, "Contra Copyright," written by Wendy McElroy (which was originally part of a debate), made me feel better because in the very first sentence she says it’s a complicated issue.

I found this article interesting in a historical context since this was written before the internet really started creating havoc with its ease of sharing information. The debate has not ended though and I suppose some would say it’s just getting started.

To understand the issue of copyright, we have to understand how copyright relates to the idea of property and ownership of property. Wendy tells us that Benjamin Tucker put forth a great analysis:
Tucker addressed this question in fundamental terms. He asked why the concept of property originated in the first place. If ideas are viewed as problem-solving devices, as answers to questions, then what about the nature of reality and the nature of man gave rise to the idea of property. In a brilliant analysis. Tucker concluded that property arose as a means of solving conflicts caused by scarcity. Since all goods are scarce, there is competition for their use. Since the same chair cannot be used in the same manner at the same time by two individuals: it was necessary to determine who should use the chair. Property resolved this problem. The owner of the chair determined its use. "If it were possible," wrote Tucker, "and if it had always been possible, for an unlimited number of individuals to use to an unlimited extent and in an unlimited number of places the same concrete things at the same time, there would never have been any such thing as the institution of property." Since the same idea or pattern can be used by an unlimited number to an unlimited extent in unlimited locations, he concluded that copyright ran counter to the very purpose of property itself — which was to ascertain the correct allocation of a scarce good.

So, ideas and information are different, you can’t completely hand over an idea or information to someone else - you can only share it. I like the example she gave that came from Thomas Jefferson. He compared an idea to lighting a candle. The light is an idea. If I have a lit candle and I light your candle with mine, you now have a lit candle but so do I. I’ve passed it along by sharing it with you but I haven’t given up any property.

Wendy is a proponent of free market copyright and one point she clarifies early on is that the market can and does create standards spontaneously. It appears that this is holding true, at least as far as the online world is concerned. If I understand it all correctly, one solution being developed is Creative Commons, where it looks to me like people freely share ideas and information contingent on a variety of chosen market-based copyright claims.

I have to say the biggest thing this article did for me was make me realize I really don’t have a good handle on this issue. If anyone has any resources they’d like to pass on, please do so in the comments section because my candle is completely melted.


Stateknowsbest said...

You should check out Stephen Kinsella at

Joe said...

Against Monopoly goes beyond copyright to encompass all so-called "intellectual property." You'll find Kinsella there too, as well as Richman and others, and some thought-provoking cartoons.

Scott said...

Speaking of Stephan Kinsella, his new pro-commerce, anti-monopoly web site is:

(But you probably already knew that.) :)

Debbie H. said...

Actually Scott I didn't know about Kinsella's new site. I see that Wendy McElroy is on the advisory board too. Thanks for the resources everyone.

Scott said...

Yes, Wendy McElroy is great. I like her a lot.

I also like Nina Paley (also on the advisory board) who has a talent for making intellectual property issues very accessible, especially with her Mimi and Eunice comic (which everyone is free to use with attribution!) and which can be found at:

Many of her comics have intellectual property themes. She's got a great sense of humor.

Another site Nina Paley is associated with is

I especially like the "Copying Is Not Theft" and the "All Creative Work Is Derivative" videos that Nina made.

Denny Jackson said...

I think there needs to be a distinction between commercial and non-commercial uses of intellectual property. Copying is not theft...unless it actually is.

I had an engineer working for me who quit and started his own business in direct competition with mine, which would have been fine, except he took with him copies of the (copyrighted) control software which we had developed for our own systems and used it to develop his own system, avoiding the long and expensive process of developing the software himself. He stole the product of many hours of labor upon which my company depended for our income, surely a theft of our property. If no commercial use of the software had been made and he only took it for his own amusement then no damage would have been done, but when we lost a job to his company because he used our product in his own system without our permission or compensating us, that, in my mind, was theft.

How, other than through copyright protection, can the developer of a work product be protected from competitors who would steal his intellectual property to enter into direct competition with him?

Debbie H. said...

I think you raise a very good example and excellent questions Denny. I certainly can't answer it since I'm learning about this as well.

I suggest you take your question to some of the people mentioned in the other comments and see what they say.

And if you learn anything that helps you to understand it all better, I hope you will return here and explain it to us.