Intellectual Property

The need for work on the ethics of intellectual property

The past fifty years have seen a extraordinary increase in the prevalence and the financial value of legal rights over intangible objects - from the ubiquity of brands such as the McDonalds ’golden arches’, the billions generated by the sale of software such as Microsoft Word, to the high price of new patented cancer drugs. As the financial importance of IP has increased, so has the volume and the vociferousness of industry sponsored lobbying to protect IP more securely, and to punish copyright violators more harshly.

Many of the most prevalent arguments deployed in favour of stringent intellectual property rights are confused and superficial. For example, it is common for industry apologists to claim that violation of copyright is 'theft’. In one notable case, cinema goers were presented with the argument that. "You wouldn't steal a car. You wouldn't steal a handbag. You wouldn't steal a movie. Downloading pirated films is stealing. Stealing is against the law."

The main problem with syllogism is that it is false to claim that downloading a film in violation of copyright law is theft. For theft requires, among other things, an intention to permanently deprive the owner of the item stolen. In making an illegal copy of a movie, you do not interfere with any copies of it that the owner may have in his possession, and so you do not actually steal it. If there is something morally wrong with copyright violation, it is something other than what is wrong with stealing. (As one of the commentators on the YouTube clip of this advert put it, ’You wouldn’t steal a car! Well it’s more like "you wouldn’t magically duplicate a car exactly then drive off in a carbon copy of said car" which, er, actually yeah that’d be pretty awesome.’)

Second, there is frequently an illicit entitlement creep in arguments about the moral wrongness of IP rights violation. Intellectual property law is nearly always — officially at least — given a utilitarian justification as a way of incentivising companies to do research and bring new goods to market. However, those who benefit most from these incentives frequently come to present them as something that they have a right to, and often argue as if they would be wronged individually were governments to reduce the extent of IP rights.

My work

My recent work on IP is an attempt to get beneath the ideological posturing that often characterises public debates about IP and ask some fundamental questions. What sort of thing do you own if you own a copyright? Does the fact that someone invests time and money into refining an idea give them a strong moral claim to exclude others from copying the invention? What principles should govern the overall shape of intellectual property policy? What special considerations apply in the case of ownership of intellectual property on antibiotics? And in the case of patents on GM crops?

I won't try to summarise my arguments here -- save to say that my major aim is to work out what intellectual property policy would look like in a society of equals, and that many recent and proposed changes to the way that IP is regulated are difficult to justify if one takes the equal moral status of all human beings as a starting point.

Publications on IP (most important works are starred)