Aaron has an interesting post on why intellectual property isn’t property. The argument is based on two premises, both of which are actually quite shaky.
The first is that intellectual property is a negative right: “it gives you no new freedoms, merely the ability to prevent others from something they would otherwise be allowed to do. This is a monopoly, something governments must protect us from.” Physical property on the other hand, gives you the freedom to use or sell something you own.
The problem with this is twofold. First of all, intellectual property is not merely negative. Owning the copyright to something gives you the right to use it yourself (by self publishing), or to sell it (something I do when I sell a piece of writing). That is just as positive as owning and selling a car, for example.
Secondly, Aaron refers to intellectual property as a “monopoly”, because of the fact that it prevents someone from doing something they would otherwise be allowed to do. First of all, the same can be said of physical property: my ownership of a car prevents someone else using that car without my permission, just as owning the rights to a book prevents someone else from using it without my permission. There is no difference. Yes, they could just buy their own car – but people can always make their own music (and own the copyright to it). Perhaps if people made more things themselves, we’d actually have better things.
Of course, “monopoly” refers to a market position, not to that of a single good. The only connection between a monopoly and ownership is the fact that in each case a single entity controls something. But we as a society agree that control of a single item is a good thing, and that control of a market is a bad thing. Because the two things concern control does not mean they must both be bad or good.
Finally, there’s the troublesome notion that somehow “copyright is not a natural right” by which I assume Aaron thinks that property ownership is a natural rights. Unfortunately, individual ownership of property is no more a natural right than anything else: it’s so deeply inscribed in law that we sometimes forget that law is all that it is. There have been societies that saw everything as belonging to gods, or to the commons, or that had no concept whatsoever that things could be owned. If you believe that property is a natural right, then these societies are someone “against the law of nature” which is frankly absurd.
Intellectual property is in trouble not because it’s a shady notion, but because companies keep attempting to abuse it, by extending copyright terms ad infinitum and attempting to remove the legitimate “fair use” rights of others. If governments were prepared to actually stand up to the corporations, the world would be a better place. Fat chance of that.