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Inheritability of Intellectual Property

PhilosophyPosted by Nico Metten Sun, April 19, 2015 17:11:34
Should Intellectual Property be inheritable? Some defenders of IP, like Jan Lester think it should. I would disagree. Why should anything be inheritable from a libertarian point of view? If Libertarianism is all about maximizing interpersonal liberty, should dead people be still considered a person whose liberty is worth maximizing? I don't think it should. Liberty is for the living, not the dead. The concept of inheritance is basically giving a person property rights beyond his or her death. Why is that supposed to maximize liberty, unless we assume that the liberty of dead people still matters?

Having said that, I am in favour of the inheritability of physical wealth. The reason for that is that physical things cannot be in the public domain. That is the reason why property is libertarian in the first place. Allowing the concept of property on some scarce things is actually liberty maximising. With the death of a person, his physical wealth does not go away. If it is true that property in this wealth was maximising liberty before his death, then it is reasonable to assume finding a new owner after his death is liberty maximising too.

To put it differently, physical wealth needs to be inherited to someone. Putting it in the public domain is not really possible because of its scarcity. And if the question is just who inherits the wealth, it seem to make sense to let the previous owner decide who the next owner should be. If not him, who else should decide it? It also seems like a good solution, because the previous owner is likely the best to make an educated decision of who is best suitable to inherit certain things. This is most likely to keep the wealth in the most productive hands.

Things look a little bit differently for IP though. There are certainly many parallels between the concept of physical and intellectual property. However, there are also some crucial differences. In particular there are two differences that make the idea for inheritability of IP look questionable.

The first one is the fact that the usability of physical property is always limited to a few people. For example, if I have a chair, only one person can sit on it at a time. The same limitation applies to every other physical property I can think of. That means that for physical things, it is inevitable to have a rule according to which we can determine, who can use a desired object for which purpose at a certain time. Most of the time, the best solution will be to grand people property rights on these objects. Less often it might be enough to have a simple possession solution in place.

IP on the other hand is lacking this characteristic of physical property. In principal, information can be used by an unlimited number of people simultaneously. There is no limitation on the information itself. For example, me reading The Wealth Of Nations does not limited someone else to read the same book at the same time. This is a big difference between physical and intellectual property. The only limitation would be the availability of the physical medium on which the information are stored. But as I already said, inheritable property rights on the medium are not a problem to me.

The second difference is that physical wealth decays. There seems to be no exception to this, although some things are so robust that for all practical purposes they can be seen as not decaying. This makes it necessary to maintain physical things. Maintaining things usually is a capital intense process. People will less likely engage in this process if they are not allowed to have some control over the result.

Information on the other hand do not decay. The pythagorean theorem for example has not decayed one bit, despite the fact that it is thousands of years old. One might argue that the physical medium it is stored on needs to be maintained otherwise the theorem would get lost with the medium. That is true, but is not much of an argument in the digital internet age. Desired information will be stored in many different locations at almost no cost.

These two differences make the idea of the inheritability of IP questionable. Other than physical property, IP can actually be in the public domain. If that is true, than what justifies giving it a new owner, after the old one has died? This seems to be an unnecessary imposition on everyone who is not the new owner.

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