Are Copyrights and Patents Property Rights?

The latest issue of Regulation magazine has a fantastic article by Peter Menell discussing the divisions in libertarian theory on copyright and patent issues. One one side is what Menel dubs the Property Rights Movement, of which Richard Epstein is a leading theoretician. They see intellectual property and more traditional property rights as fundamentally similar, and apply libertarian insights about the importance of strong property rights in tangible goods to debates over patent and copyright law. For theorists like Epstein, the need to reward the fruits of labor lie at the heart of the libertarian case for property rights, and as a consequence the argument for strong intellectual property rights is identical to the argument for tangible property rights.

The other camp sees copyright and patent law as fundamentally different from tangible property rights. It includes F.A. Hayek, many “cyberlibertarians,” and Menell himself. For this camp, the fundamental argument for property rights is not about rewarding creativity so much as managing scarcity. We need strong property rights in tangible property so people can make plans about the use of scarce resources. Since inventions and creative works are non-rivalrous once created, the argument goes, property-like restrictions on their use are at best a necessary evil.

As I’ve written before, my sympathies are with the latter camp. One difference that’s particularly important—and which Menell mentions only in passing—is the issue of clear boundaries. It’s almost always easy to determine who owns which parcel of land and where the boundary lies. In contrast, both copyright and patent law suffer from vexing line-drawing issues. For example, the legal principles governing what constitutes fair use of copyrighted materials is notoriously vague. The result is endless litigation that can hamper technological progress. Patent law can be even worse. Microsoft, for example, has vaguely hinted that the Linux operating system has infringed several hundred of its patents, but no one has been able to figure out which of Microsoft’s 6000 patents they might be referring to. It’s hard to imagine a company complaining that its competitor is trespassing on its land but refusing to give any specifics.

Ultimately, I think that lumping copyright and patent law together with traditional property law obscures more than it illuminates. There may very well be good arguments for expansive interpretations of copyright and patent law, but they’re likely to be rather different from the arguments for robust property rights in tangible goods. It makes more sense to debate those arguments on their own terms rather than confusing the issue by lumping together legal regimes that have relatively little in common.