Archive | May 20, 2010

Bye-Bye for IP

Another blast from the past, out of the same box: I believe this letter to the Durham-based Independent Weekly was published, in some form at any rate.

3 February 1995
To the Editor:

The copyright hassles of Blaise Faint (Independent Weekly 2/1/95) [2010 note: alas, I no longer recall what Blaise Faint’s copyright hassles were] illustrate how obsolete intellectual property rights have become in the electronic age, when information can be duplicated and transmitted a hundred times over in the blink of an eye.

Intellectual property rights – copyrights, patents, and the like – have always stood on dubious ground, both ethically and economically.

Don’t get me wrong. As a wild-eyed free-marketeer, I’m a fan of property rights in general – probably more so than most people. And at one time my enthusiasm for property rights extended to intellectual property as well.


But ethically, property rights of any kind have to be justified as extensions of the right of individuals to control their own lives. Thus any alleged property rights that conflict with this moral basis – like the “right” to own slaves – are invalidated. Intellectual property rights also fail to pass this test. To enforce copyright laws and the like is to prevent people from making peaceful use of the information they possess. If you have acquired the information legitimately (say, by buying a book), the on what grounds can you be prevented from using it reproducing it, trading it? Is this not a violation of the freedom of speech and press?

It may be objected that the person who originated the information deserves ownership rights over it. But information is not a concrete thing an individual can control; it is a universal, existing in other people’s minds and other people’s property, and over those the originator has no legitimate sovereignty. You cannot own information without owning other people.

As for the economic case for property rights, that case depends on scarcity, and information is not, technically speaking, a scarce resource. If A uses some material resource, that makes less of the resource for B, so we need some legal mechanism for determining who gets to use what when. But information is not like that; when A acquires information, that does not decrease B’ share, so property rights are not needed.

Bach, humbug!

Some will say that such rights are needed in order to give artists and inventors the financial incentive to create. But most of the great innovators in history operated without benefit of copyright laws. Indeed, sufficiently stringent copyright laws would have made their achievements impossible. Great playwrights like Euripides and Shakespeare never wrote an original plot in their lives; their masterpieces are all adaptations and improvements of stories written by others. Many of our greatest composers, like Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Ives, incorporated into their work the compositions of others. Such appropriation has long been an integral part of legitimate artistic freedom. (In any case, whatever protection innovators may need can be achieved through voluntary means, such as contract or boycott; there are many successful historical examples of this kind of remedy in copyright cases.)

Though never justified, copyright laws have probably not done too much damage to society so far. But in the Computer Age they are now becoming increasingly costly shackles on human progress. Consider, for instance, Project Gutenberg, a marvelous nonprofit effort to transfer as many books as possible to electronic format and make then available over the internet for free. Unfortunately, most of the works done to date have been pre-20th century – to avoid the hassles of copyright law. Thus, copyright laws today are working to restrict the availability of information, not to promote it. More importantly, modern electronic communications are simply beginning to make copyright laws unenforceable, or at least, unenforceable by any means short of a government takeover of the internet – and such a chilling threat to the future of humankind would clearly be a cure far worse than the disease.

Intellectual property rights are a luxury we can no longer afford.

Roderick T. Long

Conan on the Beat

Going through a box of old papers, I found this letter I wrote to the Chapel Hill News back in my North Carolina days; I don’t recall whether it was published.

18 May 1994
To the Editor:

The current debate over gun control is the latest, and perhaps the last, skirmish in a centuries-old conflict between two radically different visions of social order: the Celtic-Germanic system and the Imperial Roman system.


Under the Celtic-Germanic system, which dominated much of Northern Europe (especially the British Isles) during the Middle Ages, there was no distinct governmental agency known as the “police.” Instead, the responsibility for keeping the peace, enforcing the laws, and maintaining social order lay with the armed citizenry as a whole. In a sense, everybody (or at least, every free adult male) was the police, and all arrests were citizens’ arrests. Like the age-old right to judge the accused in a jury setting, the right to defend the innocent by force was a right of the people, not of government officials. (To be sure, there was some division of labor in provision of security; but this occurred within, rather than as an alteratve to, the context of an egalitarian distribution of police authority.)

More familiar to modern eyes is the Imperial Roman system. When the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire, one of Emperor Augustus’s most significant acts was to establish Rome’s first police system – the Urban Cohorts and the Vigiles. From then on, keeping the peace in Rome was the prerogative of government agents, as in modern states. Where Celtic-Germanic system police authority was bottom-up, Imperial Roman police authority was top-down.

Growing up as we have under a system like the Roman one, we tend to assume that the Roman-style system is the only one that could possibly work. But highly civilised and sophisticated peoples (e.g., medieval Ireland) lived happily and prosperously under the Celtic-Germanic system for centuries. And although the Imperial Roman system has been on the ascendancy in the west ever since the centralisation of state power during the Renaissance, the rival Celtic-Germanic system has yielded only gradually. For example, as incredible as it may seem to many today, there were no police in England before the nineteenth century; the government exercised legislative and judicial functions, but left the actual apprehsion of criminals to the armed citizenry, in the form of the “posse comitatus” or, later, “Associations for the Prosecution of Felons.”

Jonah Hex

Similar arrangements may be found in American history in the colonial “minutemen,” and later in the so-called “Wild West” – “wild” and violent according to Hollywood depictions, but surprisingly peaceful and crime-free according to current historical research. (I am not speaking of vigilantes or lynch mobs, but [2010 note: apologies for the scrambled grammar; I should have written “I am speaking not of vigilantes or lynch mobs, but of”] responsible citizens’ associations that respected the rights of the accused.) Our country’s founders still recognised the right of self-defense as the foundation and presupposition of all other rights.

On a recent ABC documentary on guns, a gun rights advocate unwittingly echoed the Celtic-Germanic paradigm when he suggested that recent tragedies like the Long Island train shooting could have been averted if the other passengers on the train had also been armed and able to take defensive action. In response, a gun prohibition advocate expressed incredulity, and exclaimed that a society in which everyone “packs heat” would collapse into “anarchy” – a viewpoint unwittingly expressive of the Roman perspective.

Indeed today’s advocates of gun prohibition are so deeply in the grip of the Imperial Roman paradigm that they literally cannot grasp or conceive of the Celtic-Germanic alternative – and thus, for example, are unable to see the Second Amendment’s “militia” as anything but a government agency, despite clear historical evidence that in the eighteenth century “militia” meant the armed citizenry.

In this country today the Imperial Roman system is poised on the brink of its final victory: the complete disarmament of the citizenry. Before we take that final step, we should ask ourselves whether our long journey away from the Celtic-Germanic system has really been a move in the right direction. Are we really safer or more secure today as a result of this transformation? The evidence suggests otherwise.

A restoration of, or at least a move back in the direction of, the Celtic-Germanic system would have at least five advantages over our current Roman-style system.

  • First, it would provide greater discouragement to criminal behaviour by in effect raisig the numbers, presence, and reaction time of the “police” to a maximum.
  • Second, it would more flexible, efficient, and inexpensive than a tax-funded bureaucracy.
  • Third, it would reestablish neighbourhood control over law enforcement, a desperately needed measure in the light of police harassment of minorities.
  • Fourth, it would more faithfully embody our democratic egalitarian heritage by making the use of defensive force a universal right rather than the privilege of an elite.
  • And fifth, by diminishing the power differential between citizens and their government, it would seriously block the evident tendency of contemporary western democracies to evolve toward a police state.

Roderick T. Long

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