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Is Intellectual Property a Logical Fallacy?

TsaiSep 11, 2016, 3:49:24 PM

The intellectual property debate is a hot topic of discussion amongst liberty-minded people. For novelists, musicians, artists, engineers, computer programmers, and any other professionals involved in the creation of 'intellectual property', they tend to lean towards the side that argues that intellectual property exists. I will admit my own bias here. I have an interest in writing novels. I don't like the idea of having my work copied and disseminated for profit by someone else. I feel like I own the ideas I produce.

However, just because I feel a certain way, that does not mean it is the truth. I've forced myself to confront this issue, and I would like to share my thoughts here.

Can ideas be owned?

What does it mean to own an idea? If I purchase a car, that car is mine. I paid for that car with money that I earned by working long hours. If I go fishing in an unclaimed, un-owned pond, any fish I catch is my fish because I put in the effort to get the fish where no fish would be available for consumption before.

Similarly, if I produce an idea, I have created something which did not exist before. Therefore, the idea should be attributed to me. I am responsible for the idea. I definitely own the idea.

But can ideas be stolen?

If somebody takes my car without my permission, they have deprived me of something that I owned. That is theft.

If somebody takes my idea... Hold on a minute. How do you take an idea? Ideas are not physical objects. You can't take an idea. You copy it. You can't steal an idea. You can only copy it. If you copy my idea, you have not deprived me of my idea. I still have that idea in my brain and in my computer. No theft has occurred.

Doesn't pirating software deprive the software developers of their income? 

Yes. And a competing business selling a competing product would have the same effect. If my customers do business with competitors or piraters, I can't say that these other entities stole my customers, and therefore stole my money. I don't own my customers, and I don't own their money. Nothing has been stolen from me.

But isn't plagiarism morally wrong?

The act of copying itself is not morally wrong. Copying does not inflict physical damage upon me, nor does it deprive me of my property. However, I have identified a few situations where copying in addition to something else may be considered morally wrong, and should have consequences. Note that I'm not interested in what the laws currently are. I am interested in what the laws should be (assuming that a state should exist at all, but that's a topic for another day...)


If you receive payment for an idea that you plagiarized that you claim is yours, that is fraud. Fraud is a form of a theft. Theft is immoral. I may force you to pay restitution to the people you defrauded. Note that I did not say I may force you to pay restitution to me, the original creator of the idea, because you have not deprived me of my property. You have deprived your customers of their property through fraud. 

Violations of institutional rules

If you work for a company, and you submit a plagiarized idea to your boss in violation of company rules, the company may discipline you or fire you as they see fit.

If you are a student at a university, and you submit plagiarized work to your professor, the university may discipline you or expel you as they see fit.   

Violating property rights to copy an idea

If you physically break into private property to copy an idea, or hack into a private computer to copy an idea, that is a punishable offence.

Doesn't this leave too many loopholes for plagiarists to exploit?       

It's true. According to the moral rules I outlined above, you can copy my idea and make it available for free without consequence. You can copy my idea and sell it for profit without consequence as long as you clearly inform your customers that you have plagiarized my idea and that I am the originator of that idea. I don't like this, but I cannot claim that you have violated any moral rules. I would have to trust that people would choose not to do business with a lousy cheat like you, and prefer to do business with the originator of the idea.

In any case, I can always lower my price to the point where you no longer have a competitive edge. I can implement DRM or other features to protect my work. I can find other ways of monetizing my idea that does not involve directly selling the idea. And at the end of the day, if my ideas are worth copying, then that means I must have already proven that my idea is worth a lot of money by making a lot of money. In that case, I will have already reaped the reward of being the first to come up with that idea. Hopefully, that is enough of an incentive for me to continue to produce new ideas.