Olympian Follies (or Intellectual Property is Theft)

Political and media commentary on the economic meltdown in Greece rarely refer to either the enormous costs of Greece hosting the Olympics in 2004 or the 2008  world economic crisis as major factors in the collapse of the Greek economy, preferring to blame the Greek people for their own misfortune. Now we are hearing about the lack of economic “spinoffs” for London during the 2012 Olympics, as tourists stay at home or go elsewhere.

As usual, there are also stories about “crackdowns” on people making unauthorized use of the Olympic name and logo, even if they have used them for decades prior to London hosting the Olympic games. Since the time of Proudhon, anarchists have denounced property as theft (see Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas), including so-called “intellectual property,” such as copyright and patents. 

In the excerpts below, taken from a pamphlet published in 1903, the American individualist anarchist, Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939), who was influenced by Proudhon but approved of some form of property rights, sets forth his argument against intellectual property, or “property in ideas.”

Benjamin Tucker

Benjamin Tucker: Intellectual Property is Theft

…the question of property in ideas is a very subtle one. The defenders of such property set up an analogy between the production of material things and the production of abstractions, and on the strength of it declare that the manufacturer of mental products, no less than the manufacturer of material products, is a laborer worthy of his hire. So far, so good. But, to make out their case, they are obliged to go further, and to claim, in violation of their own analogy, that the laborer who creates mental products, unlike the laborer who creates material products, is entitled to exemption from competition. Because the Lord, in his wisdom, or the Devil, in his malice, has so arranged matters that the inventor and the author produce naturally at a disadvantage, man, in his might, proposes to supply the divine or diabolic deficiency by an artificial arrangement that shall not only destroy this disadvantage, but actually give the inventor and author an advantage that no other laborer enjoys – an advantage, moreover, which, in practice goes, not to the inventor and the author, but to the promoter and the publisher and the trust [capitalist conglomerates]…

I take it that, if it were possible, and if it had always been possible, for an unlimited number of individuals to use to an unlimited extent and in an unlimited number of places the same concrete things at the same time, there never would have been any such thing as the institution of property. Under those circumstances the idea of property would never have entered the human mind, or, at any rate, if it had, would have been summarily dismissed as too gross an absurdity to be seriously entertained for a moment. Had it been possible for the concrete creation or adaptation resulting from the efforts of a single individual to be used contemporaneously by all individuals, including the creator or adapter, the realization, or impending realization, of this possibility, far from being seized upon as an excuse for a law to prevent the use of this concrete thing without the consent of its creator or adapter, and far from being guarded against as an injury to one, would have been welcomed as a blessing to all, – in short, would have been viewed as a most fortunate element in the nature of things. The raison d’être of property is found in the very fact that there is no such possibility, – in the fact that it is impossible in the nature of things for concrete objects to be used in different places at the same time. This fact existing, no person can remove from another’s possession and take to his own use another’s concrete creation without thereby depriving that other of all opportunity to use that which he created, and for this reason it became socially necessary, since successful society rests on individual initiative, to protect the individual creator in the use of his concrete creations by forbidding others to use them without his consent. In other words, it became necessary to institute property in concrete things.

But all this happened so long ago that we of today have entirely forgotten why it happened. In fact, it is very doubtful whether, at the time of the institution, of property, those who effected it thoroughly realized and understood the motive of their course. Men sometimes do by instinct and without analysis that which conforms to right reason. The institutors of property may have been governed by circumstances inhering in the nature of things, without realizing that, had the nature of things been the opposite, they would not have instituted property. But, be that as it may, even supposing that they thoroughly understood their course, we, at any rate, have pretty nearly forgotten their understanding. And so it has come about that we have made of property a fetish; that we consider it a sacred thing; that we have set up the god of property on an altar as an object of idol-worship; and that most of us are not only doing what we can to strengthen and perpetuate his reign within the proper and original limits of his sovereignty, but also are mistakenly endeavoring to extend his dominion over things and under circumstances which, in their pivotal characteristic, are precisely the opposite of those out of which his power developed.

1895 Patent

All of which is to say in briefer compass, that from the justice and social necessity of property in concrete things we have erroneously assumed the justice and social necessity of property in abstract things, – that is, of property in ideas, – with the result of nullifying to a large and lamentable extent that fortunate element in the nature of things, in this case not hypothetical, but real, – namely, the immeasurably fruitful possibility of the use of abstract things by any number of individuals in any number of places at precisely the same time, without in the slightest degree impairing the use thereof by any single individual. Thus we have hastily and stupidly jumped to the conclusion that property in concrete things logically implies property in abstract things, whereas, if we had had the care and the keenness to accurately analyze, we should have found that the very reason which dictates the advisability of property in concrete things denies the advisability of property in abstract things. We see here a curious instance of that frequent mental phenomenon – the precise inversion of the truth by a superficial view.

Furthermore, were the conditions the same in both cases, and concrete things capable of use by different persons in different places at the same time, even then, I say, the institution of property in concrete things, though under those conditions manifestly absurd, would be infinitely less destructive of individual opportunities, and therefore infinitely less dangerous and detrimental to human welfare, than is the institution of property in abstract things. For it is easy to see that, even should we accept the rather startling hypothesis that a single ear of corn is continually and permanently consumable, or rather inconsumable, by an indefinite number of persons scattered over the surface of the earth, still the legal institution of property in concrete things that would secure to the sower of a grain of corn the exclusive use of the resultant ear would not, in so doing, deprive other persons of the right to sow other grains of corn and become exclusive users of their respective harvests; whereas the legal institution of property in abstract things not only secures to the inventor, say, of the steam engine the exclusive use of the engines which he actually makes, but at the same time deprives all other persons of the right to make for themselves other engines involving any of the same ideas. Perpetual property in ideas, then, which is the logical outcome of any theory of property in abstract things, would, had it been in force in the lifetime of James Watt, have made his direct heirs the owners of at least nine-tenths of the now existing wealth of the world; and, had it been in force in the lifetime of the inventor of the Roman alphabet, nearly all the highly civilized peoples of the earth would be today the virtual slaves of that inventor’s heirs, which is but another way of saying that, instead of becoming highly civilized, they would have remained in the state of semi-barbarism. It seems to me that these two statements, which in my view are incontrovertible, are in themselves sufficient to condemn property in ideas forever.

From “The Attitude of Anarchism Toward Industrial Combinations,”  a speech at the Chicago Civic Federation Conference on Trusts, September 14, 1899


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