Breeched Wales Bloviating in the Hot Sun

Location: Long Island, New York, United States

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Copyrights as Physical Property Rights

This article is in draft and I will be changing it...

I don't see the problem that the anti intellectual property people have with copyrights. It's pretty damn obvious and in fact provable that if you produce a copy of "The Santanic Verses" that you haven't written it yourself from scratch. Even with complete freedom to use your own personal resources as you desire you cannot do so without using an existing copy. The odds are the universe will blink out before you manage to write "The Satanic Verses" without access to another copy. So it is no real sense restriction on the use of your resources to disallow you from copying my book. Go ahead, play with all your resources for the rest of your life and it will not result in you producing "The Satanic Verses" so long as you do not infringe the copyright.

Now it is possible for you to make a copy. However that requires that you obtain a existing copy. These can be of two kinds, authorized and unauthorized versions. If you use an authorized version to make your copy then you are in fact violating a physical property right. The owner of the authorized version has complete ownership of the physical copy except for the purposes of copying. Those rights are retained by the copyright holder. He owns the rights to the physical object with regards to copying. There is no way to make a copy without violating this physical right. What of the unauthorized copy. Well it was produced using the input of another persons property. Thus it is not properly owned by the person who holds it.

Perhaps you skeptics can get a handle on this if you think of a book not only as a consumer good but as a producer good. It is a producer good in the sense that it can be used to produce additional books. It is in a sense a factor of production like a printing press. The copyright owner retains ownership the right to use the good as a producer good. When a unauthorized copy is made it is tantamount to the unauthorized use of a productive piece of machinery. It doesn't matter whether you provide the raw materials in this process, you are stealing the use of the machine. In so doing you have mixed your private property with the owners in way that violates his rights and you must provide restitution. Can someone come onto your beachfront property, dump a bag of sand upon it, mix it in and then claim ownership? Of course not. Nor can I make a delivery of raw materials and employees to a Toyota factory after hours, build a minivan using their resources, and claim full ownership of the end result.

If someone were to hack into your computer to print off some photographs he liked on your paper you certainly wouldn't like it. Do you think it is any better if instead of stealing the copies he made with your property that he offered to compensate you for the cost of the paper alone?

This issue can also be extended to the issue of property abandonment. If a copy of a book that is copyrighted is lost but the copyright owner still retains ownership then the copy only represents a restricted copy. If instead the copyright holder should abandon ownership then it is up to anyone with a copy of the book to homestead this right.

Note that my argument does not hold water when trying to copyright phrases like "I'm Loving It". How exactly do you prove in court that someone else didn't independently invent that phrase. Also understand that there is a continum all the way from an exact copy to a book that touches on the same subject. Thus drawing a clear line is not possible. However the same holds for other physical property rights we recognize. Exactly how deep below the earth and how high above it does a landowner control? So this is another area where copyright ownership is similar to any other property right.