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Saturday, December 30th 2006

Defining Intellectual Property Rights

The thinking goes that when you take someone’s idea or creative creation you aren’t depriving them of anything. You didn’t steal a physical copy of that song, you didn’t take the actual pill that is constructed from the drug formula, you didn’t steal an actual copy of that book.

Typical, and ex pouted again in this British Medical Journal editorial,

Intellectual property differs from other property—restricting its use is inefficient as it costs nothing for another person to use it. Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, put it more poetically than modern economists (who refer to “zero marginal costs” and “non-rivalrous consumption”) when he said that knowledge is like a candle, when one candle lights another it does not diminish from the light of the first. Using knowledge to help someone does not prevent that knowledge from helping others. Intellectual property rights, however, enable one person or company to have exclusive control of the use of a particular piece of knowledge, thereby creating monopoly power. Monopolies distort the economy. Restricting the use of medical knowledge not only affects economic efficiency, but also life itself.

Their solution is you don’t own what you create. So where does the incentive to create come from?

A medical prize fund provides an alternative. Such a fund would give large rewards for cures or vaccines for diseases like malaria that affect millions, and smaller rewards for drugs that are similar to existing ones, with perhaps slightly different side effects. The intellectual property would be available to generic drug companies. The power of competitive markets would ensure a wide distribution at the lowest possible price, unlike the current system, which uses monopoly power, with its high prices and limited usage.

The prizes could be funded by governments in advanced industrial countries. For diseases that affect the developed world, governments are already paying as part of the health care they provide for their citizens. For diseases that affect developing countries, the funding could be part of development assistance. Money spent in this way might do as much to improve the wellbeing of people in the developing world—and even their productivity—as any other that they are given.

The trouble is, intellectual property is not something we should just legislate. You inherently own your creations or you don’t. We all know plagiarism is wrong. But the distinctions attempted between copying, say, someone’s book and a drug formula are futile attempts to justify an end. I’ve heard them, and they are not sound logic on their own, but merely convoluted reasoning followed through with a conclusion already in mind. There is no distinction between copying one or the other. So hold fast to your belief about intellectual property for the common good, but don’t delude yourself into thinking you can distinguish the rights of “authors” in one “medium” from another.

I think it is sound that these prize funds could promote public good. We could do much to sacrifice rights to promote common good. The forceful redistribution of wealth to narrow the wealth gap, forceful redistribution of land. Don’t get all up in a wad, I’m not calling denying IP rights some form of convoluted Communism. But the argument that the common good can usurp the rights of individuals is one that is often not spelled out in full.

For instance, in this particular editorial it does an incredibly poor job of laying out the argument that property rights are of so little value that the common good easily trumps them. That is a fundamental question that every author should be trying to answer and every reader should be asking themselves and yet often it is left out as merely an obvious conclusion (‘no duh!’) that the reader will surely agree with the author on.

Just try to summarize in your mind when it is really acceptable to deny rights to individuals for the betterment of “most.”