Being a supporter of intellectual property (IP) protections*, and because I seem to enjoy banging my rhetorical head against a wall, I am frequently led into debates about the relative merit of IP laws. My impression, reinforced by this recent exchange, is that the arguments commonly heard against IP are weak, and almost laughably so. So here's a short list of poor arguments against IP protection that should be avBeing a supporter of intellectual property (IP) protections*, and because I seem to enjoy banging my rhetorical head against a wall, I am frequently led into debates about the relative merit of IP laws. My impression, reinforced by this recent exchange, is that the arguments commonly heard against IP are weak, and almost laughably so. So here's a short list of poor arguments against IP protection that should be avoided:
- If we abandoned IP protections, there would be much more innovation than there is today, because we could learn from other people's contributions. There's nothing preventing you from reading, e.g., a patent and discovering how something works. This is the whole point of patents. Also, if this is true, then why aren't jurisdictions where IP enforcement is lax (e.g., China, southeast Asia, the former Eastern bloc) beating the pants off the United States as far as innovation is concerned? Indeed, more effort in these places seems to be directed towards infringement than innovation, which completely belies the argument. I have yet to hear a convincing counter to this point, which is the biggest elephant in the room for the anti-IP crowd.
- In the absence of IP, people will still innovate, and people will still get paid to innovate. A watered-down statement of the above, and true. But they would not innovate as much, because corporate and private research would be difficult to fund. It would be much riskier to develop, and harder to fund, a start-up tech company, because a much larger company could use its full resources to reverse-engineer the start-up's product, and use its reach to shut the start-up out. These risks scare away investors. To a much larger degree than today, professional innovators would only be funded by the government or by wealthy benefactors (e.g., at universities). I don't see as utopian a world where innovation takes place at the whim of the government or for the pleasure of the rich.
- In technology, being first to market is more important than having IP protection. Often true, but without protection, investing in innovation is riskier (because a competitor could copy your product at any time), and the comparative payoffs for investing in innovation are smaller (because your pricing power is gone once your innovative advantage is gone). Again, investors react to higher risk and lower payoff by getting out of the market.
- Once your product is stale, your market is gone, so you have to innovate. There doesn't seem to be any lack of buyers for, say, toasters. Their technology hasn't changed in decades, and in a lot of cases, neither has their style. There are enormous markets for well-made, static products.
- The Renaissance was one of the most innovative periods in human history, and they had no IP protection. True. But this is my favorite weak argument. The Renaissance did not have science as we know it today. There was no steam engine, no mass production, no replaceable parts. The economy of most nations was based primarily on agriculture. The printing press only made its appearance towards the end of the period. So basically, this argument boils down to the following: "In a world that is nothing like the one in which we live, they innovated without IP."
I support IP laws because innovation drives our economy, they support the little inventors by giving their ideas real value, and mostly because they have been demonstrated to work in practice. There are many things about them that suck, granted, but there is no evidence whatever that the alternative represents an improvement.
*I support reform of IP laws, but not abolition.