Intellectual property is a valid form of property rights; however, most of the flaws are not with the inherent claims to ownership of the intangible property; but rather the laws allocating these rights. The duration and definitions of what constitutes IP rights can seem arbitrary (p.25). All because the Copyright Act of 1976 mandates the peculiar terms as being:
“…For works made for hire and anonymous and pseudonymous works, the duration of copyright is 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter (unless the author’s identity is later revealed in Copyright Office records, in which case the term becomes the author’s life plus 70 years) (p.1)…”
This exercise in line drawing is riddled with flaws and subject to the capricious whims of interest groups (the rent-seeking behavior of Disney). Conversely, it is inane to suggest that because the property is not tangible, therefore; we cannot own it because the property lines are not clearly defined (p.2). If IP is non-rivalrous it would be considered a public good (p.534). This is ironic since many Libertarian critics are hostile towards IP and also reject the notion of public goods. Even intangible property is rivalrous and excludable. The confusion is that consumption intangible property is not rivalrous, but the ability to profit from IP is. The first entrant into a new market will be the one to reap the most benefit from the innovative product, service, or process. Consumers will generally see anything afterward as a cheap imitation (unless they can drastically improve the product).
The above statement should not be confused as an appeal to legislative fiat or other state measures to resolve this conundrum. But it is foolish to pretend that IP is analogous to a public good. We can alienate it (in the Lockean sense) through tacit acknowledgment of the first of the idea, patentable process, trademark, etc. Paralleling the first use provisions implied in the prior appropriation water rights regimes in the western United States. The first to put the concept to practical use could claim ownership. Admittedly, the transaction costs of such an informal system would be high. In other words, the government needs to clarify IP rights? Maybe. Hypothetically, producers could eliminate ambiguity through user contracts and licensing agreements (disputes which can be adjudicated in a private or polycentric legal system).
The Lockean conception of shelf-ownership does not work if we cannot alienate self-hood. In the context of involuntary slavery, our absolute right (p.10) to self-possession is relinquished through coercive force . The notion of natural rights almost always implies that the individual owns. For instance, the right of free speech codified under the First Amendment of the Constitution implies self-ownership. Individuals embroiled in political debate must utilize the very bodies they own and utilize scarce resources (p.2)to engage in the passionate exchange. There is one glaring flaw that most ethical theorists get dead wrong about natural rights. Our negative rights that are part-and-parcel with our personhood may be self-evident, but they are certainly not inalienable. The American Declaration of Independence echoes this sentiment and forever cements it in the public consciousness:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
The claim that these rights are unalienable does not connote ownership of these rights in any meaningful sense. By the inseparable nature of self-ownership and natural rights, we do not truly have unfettered possession of ourselves. The ability to alienate something is that can only be the consequence of ownership. True ownership implies that an individual can transfer, maintain, sell, deface, lease, destroy, etc. the article in question as they see fit. One of the strongest arguments for this radical interpretation of ownership comes from economist and Libertarian theorist Walter Block. Dr. Block writing “..No law should be enacted prohibiting or even limiting in any way people’s rights to alienate those things they own. This is “full monte” alienability, or commodification…” (p. 6) . Block surmises that an unlimited condition of ownership naturally extends to the person, meaning that if an individual chooses to sell themselves into slavery this is legitimate. Unlike the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the individual being sold is consenting to the arrangement .
However, most, and moral theorists would suggest that natural rights, especially selfhood cannot be alienated or dispensed with. As our mind and body are typically inseparable; neither can be reallocated nor disposed of. This supposition suffers from an unfortunate fallacy because a person can voluntarily absolve their will and sentience. In the most extreme case, a person could give themselves a lobotomy effectively alienating their will and severing their mind from their corporal body (p.8) .
There are less extreme examples of people abstractly selling off natural rights in exchange for material gain. One only needs to look to employment contracts to see a ubiquitous example of this selective selling of rights. It is common for employers to include social media policies as a condition of employment. Effectively acting as a voluntarily acknowledged limit on free expression; a right codified under the First Amendment. Regardless of whether this restriction is a temporary sale of this right or permanent alienation it is a legitimate exchange. From the standpoint of Rothbardian contract law, this arrangement fulfills the criteria for an enforceable contract. Under this theory of contract law, the property must be exchanged for the contract to be binding, any other agreement is a mere promise (p.133-135). At the core of an employment contract or conditions of employment, the property is being exchanged. The employer is transferring compensation (monetary and additional benefits) to the employee. This exchange is contingent upon the employee following the company’s internal policies. Indirectly operating as a form of selling or “renting” natural rights in exchange for employment.
Selling property is merely one means of alienating property. Other more drastic measures can achieve this same outcome. The concept that an individual can condemn their property, mirroring the same privilege current held by various tiers of the U.S. government. The only difference is that when the state does it, they do so without the consent of the owner. Even when eminent domain is practiced within the parameters of the takings clause, however, the property owner generally does not have the right to refuse to surrender their property. Regardless of whether they are justly compensated for the relinquishment of their business, land, or home this arrangement is still inherently coercive. In stark contrast, if a property owner dedicates to transfer or otherwise condemn the land they own, this is legitimate. Effectively, suicide is an example of a person opting to condemn themselves. A person choosing to forever dispose of themselves permanently disables their ability to contribute to society; mimicking how governing institutions can decree that land or a build is no longer fit for occupation or commercial use. The state typically initiates such a directive in the context of habitation or use of the property would pose a “safety hazard”. However, a person contemplating “condemning” themselves does not need to fabricate such vague excuses. If they truly own their own body and mind, they do not have to provide any justification for performing such action. Unlike eminent domain, the individual can consent to the decision they have made.
Most people might argue that allowing others to commit suicide with no mandated intervention would squander human lives . Further supporting this statement by repeating tired platitudes about how it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. No doubt, suicide does come with a wide array of societal costs. The individual can never be replaced nor can their human capital because no two people have the same experiences. If we set aside the externalities of the act, there’s a deeper conflict at play. There’s a long tradition of property owners having the right to destroy what they own. The right to destroy one’s property has its roots in the doctrines of Roman and English Common law (p.8). Moreover, there is a long-standing tradition that arguably supersedes the concerns of modern environmentalists or other public interest initiatives. The concern for wasting resources was even voiced by John Locke back in the seventeenth century:
The same law of nature, which does by this means give us property, does also bound that property. God has given us all things richly, 1 Tim. vi. 12. is the voice of reason confirmed by inspiration. But how far has he given it to us? To enjoy. As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his Tabour fix a property in whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy. (p.12).
While Locke provides us with prudent advice regarding resource management, it is nevertheless, a suggestion. A just legal system would defend the property owners’ right to dispose of their property how they choose, even if it is considered wasteful. A legal system that has penalties or restrictions impeding the right to destroy one’s property, provides a perverted form of justice. Much like anything else a person owns, they should be able to “destroy” themselves. In a sense, we legally permit other more protracted forms of incremental suicide. For instance, currently, no laws are prohibiting the sale or consumption of sugar-saturated and chemical ladened soft drinks. Although cigarettes are highly taxed and regulated, we still live in a society where smoking is still legally tolerated. Both soda and cigarettes slowly kill the person ingesting either product; despite this fact, these products should remain legal. Following this same logic, if the person should be able to choose what they put into their body, they can choose to also ultimately dispose of their body.
. The account of Slavery in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1690).
. The idea of wasting human life can be applied in an economic sense. The decreasing fertility rates in the Western world present challenges to the labor force and the tax pool. Especially, after all the Baby-boomers die.