My ongoing debate with Dr. Walter Block on intellectual property protection has officially, with Dr. Block's Part 8, Block versus Wenzel on Intellectual Property, moved to written word from oral debate. I too am happy with this turn of events, since I believe it provides for a much more precise debate.
I will in this post provide a point-by-point response to Block Part 8, and I will begin with Dr. Block's charge that I have engaged in a performative contradiction.
My first response to this charge is to note that although I believe I successfully rebutted this charge by noting that I, in fact, was not using words that were owned by others, there is another approach to consider when considering problems with Dr. Block's charge.
The philosopher Dr. David Gordon highlighted this problem, when in response to our debate
, he commented:
Suppose that you were able to trace a word back to its original author, but you used the word without paying him or his heirs. Further, suppose that you believe that you are obligated to pay. None of this shows that you would be contradicting yourself by using the word without paying. You would be doing what you believe you ought not to do. That is very different from a contradiction.I will leave Dr. Block and Dr. Gordon to hash this part of the debate out and am content here to simply point out that there are weaknesses in Dr. Block's approach from many directions.
As for my use of words, I am happy to see that Dr. Block now agrees that I have no obligation to trace back any words I am using to determine if there are any copyright claims on them. This is not the position he held during the verbal part of the debate.
But he does critique me from another direction. He tells us that he is writing, "something unrealistic." Boy, I do agree with that point! He proposes the following model:
I am not referring to any aspect of reality. Rather, I am concocting a contrary to fact conditional, one based, precisely, on Bob’s IP viewpoint; that his views on this matter were employed, were in operation, were respected by all, during that long ago epoch when words first came into use. Then, assuming even a modicum of profit seeking behavior, these words would have been owned, passed.down to the heirs of their creators, and Bob (along with everyone else) would not be free to use them...
How realistic is this science fictionish world I have created? Not very much at all. Rather, it is highly impracticable. For humans could not possibly have survived, beaten out the sabre-tooth tiger and their ilk, without cooperating with each other. But language, of course, is the sine qua non, of working together. So, the human race would have perished, very quickly, had they adopted the Wenzel view of IP. No one could have communicated with anyone else, at least not in words. This goes, also, for gestures, facial expressions, since they, too, are ideas, and, according to Wenzel, can come under the proprietorship of their creators. Bob and I would not now be around at all, and, certainly, would not be able to debate each other on these issues or any others.So Dr. Block is creating in his own words an unrealistic world view, but claims this part of his model holds my IP view:
[T]he human race would have perished, very quickly, had they adopted the Wenzel view of IP. No one could have communicated with anyone else, at least not in wordsThis is a major mischaracterization of my view, which I attempted to correct many times during the verbal part of the debate. At no time have I ever held the view that because a person has created something that he must charge for such a creation. Further, Dr. Block's characterization that should IP protection be recognized that there will never be any words, or other intellectual property, given away for free simply is another part of his "unrealistic" model, given that every day we see all types of creations given away for free, not only intellectual property but physical property. Indeed, the internet, itself, is one giant smorgasbord of free creations. Open source software is another example.
Most striking the free web site, Wikipedia, lists many examples of giving away creations for free on its web page Frebbie marketing, including an example of the "greedy" capitalist John D. Rockefeller giving away eight million kerosene lamps :
Freebie marketing has been used in business models for many years. The Gillette company still uses this approach, often sending disposable safety razors in the mail to young men near their 18th birthday, or packaging them as giveaways at public events that Gillette has sponsored.
Standard Oil with a monopoly in the American domestic market, and its owner, John D. Rockefeller, looked to China to expand their business. Representatives of Standard Oil gave away eight million kerosene lamps for free or at greatly reduced prices to increase the demand for kerosene.
Among American businessmen, this gave rise to the catchphrase "Oil for the lamps of China." Alice Tisdale Hobart's novel Oil for the Lamps of China was a fictional treatment of the phenomenon.Is it really that hard to believe that poets, writers, salesman and song writers wouldn't get together and create open source words if there weren't any, so they could get their ideas across? Would they really all simply die and collapse on the way side as Dr. Block suggests? Would a man who is hungry not allow others to use the words he invented, such as, "Get me some food." and "Here is some food," and rather die? Dr. Block's model is simply absurd as a tool to help us to understand how things would develop in the real world.
No one who owns words is going to die rather than allow others to use those words to get him food. Further, I advance the notion that a rich free open source vocabulary would develop in a libertarian society where intellectual property protection is recognized. It simply makes sense for some things to be open source and words, in general, fall into this category. Dr. Block's "dumb and greedy" model of how a libertarian society would functiomnwith intellectual property protection flies in the face of reality. He is essentially denying that open source could occur in the world of IP protection, when in fact it does, He seems to be denying that institutes like the Mises Institute could exist where volumes upon volumes are made available online for free. In Dr. Block's unusual model, he is denying these things would exist. Yey, in the current world, where IP protection does exist, they do.
I am not sure how to make this point any clearer. Dr. Block's unrealistic model is much more unrealistic than he imagines and is of no use in understanding a world where any person would most certainly allow others to communicate with him about food, with words he owns, rather than starve to death --and, I feel compelled to make clear, communicate, and use words, about many other things.
Let us move on.
Dr. Block then raises the case of a Girl A who makes a pony tail out of her hair and Girl B copies this from her own backyard. Is Girl B violating copyright? As Dr. Block notes this "problem" was raised by Dr. Michael Edelstein, who arranged the initial discussion between Dr. Block and me, and who was a timekeeper as well as participant in the debate.
The hardcore interpretation of intellectual property protection would consider the copying of a backyard ponytail an aggression, that is the stealing of an idea. What is complex about this? It is my view that intellectual creations are creations. I do recognize independent discovery, but theft is theft. The question of whether someone wants to prosecute every infraction, or how easy it would be to prosecute every infraction, is an entirely different question. Dr. Edelstein and Dr, Block were attempting. I believe to argue via reductio ad absurdum and failed. Simply because prosecution of "ponytail theft," sounds extreme doesn't mean that it is not a technically valid example of intellectual property theft, anymore so than the using of a few pieces of toilet paper from a hotel bathroom, where a person is not a guest, doesn't mean it is not a technically valid example of physical property theft, though the likelihood of prosecution is close to zero.
But further, even, if for the sake of argument, we do not consider what Girl B has done as intellectual property infringement, how does this invalidate the entire idea of IP? Dr, Edelstein brought up this example, I believe, because it involves a subset of overall IP, specifically two girls, each on their own property. What does this have to do with the general concept of IP protection? The answer is, of course, nothing. It is a debate about how IP should be protected under very unusual circumstances and not about the general idea of IP that overwhelmingly has nothing to do with such circumstances. One could, though I do not, hold that Girl B did not violate IP, but still believe in IP protection in general.
Dr. Block then goes on to argue that ones ideas are "out there" and are "no longer scarce...and property rights make sense only when applied to scarce things." This gets much further to the essence of our debate and a consideration of Dr. Block's point will hopefully make clear the great weaknesses in his argument.
First, we must consider this oddball use of the phrase 'no longer scarce" by Dr. Block. Air is pretty much not scarce, but how does this possibly apply to intellectual property? I sell consulting services, I publish the EPJ Daily Alert and I am about to conduct a course on publishing a blog. These are all intellectual creations of mine and I am charging for them and others are paying for what I am offering, which by definition means that they are scarce creations. Otherwise, why would anyone pay for them?
The idea that these intellectual creations are not scarce is absurd. Once my creations are conveyed to other people, they may be "out there" in the sense that some people may know them but that does not mean that everyone knows them. Indeed, for my publishing course, not only am I offering a live lecture on November 15, but I am also offering a recording of the exact same course on December 1. The number of people who have signed up for the December 1 course is substantial, are they making an error because the course is "out there" and "no longer scarce"? Of course not, The idea that simply because a few people know something that it is no longer "scarce" is a complete distortion of the term scarcity. To attempt to build a theory on such a base is quite stunning.
Further, simply because the original creator may continue to hold in his mind a creation does not in any way mean that he created the intellectual property for that reason. I am not creating my course on professional blogging because I need an outline of my views on the subject. I am creating the course solely because I believe it is something of value that others will be willing to pay for. There is no value to me in the course other than that I can sell it. If someone surreptitiously recorded the course for others to see on the internet and I objected, such a criminal may claim that, "Well, you still have it." This would not come close to addressing the point of why I created the course and the terms under which I have chosen to release the course. In other words, it would be a violation of the purpose of the terms under which I created the course and released it, even if "I still have it." My creation was not done simply so that "I could have it.".
I believe it is the height of arrogance, and a violation of the non-aggression principle, to declare how a person can, or can not, control a creation of his own. Why can we not simply honor the conditions under which a person agrees to release a creation of his own? What libertarian principle dictates that outsiders can dictate the terms of an exchange of a creative idea between two people?
Finally, Dr. Block accuses me of having a realtivistic philosophy, which I do not. Through out our verbal debate, I stated that I was very uncomfortable getting into a debate on the foundations of libertarian philosophy, as I am doing a lot of thinking and research on the topic and do not want to comment on a topic where I am in the early stages of studying. So I will refrain from debating Dr. Block on philosophical points at this time. This is not to say that I will not have much to say on the topic at a further date. I will have much to say, but it is simply to early for me to comment on the subject at this time.
Robert Wenzel is Editor & Publisher at EconomicPolicyJournal.com and at Target Liberty. He is also author of The Fed Flunks: My Speech at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Follow him on twitter:@wenzeleconomics