Intellectual monopolies are not property, and duplicating them is not theft, part 2

published Feb 14, 2012, last modified Oct 05, 2022

A longer explanation of what property is, why intellectual poverty (the proposition that one may morally prevent others from duplicating intangibles) is false, why duplicating intangibles is not theft, and how the intellectual poverty lie came about.

I will attempt to give you, my reader, an honest and comprehensive answer based on my Reddit comment here.

What property is

Property, at its most basic, means the moral claim to control things exclusively, with the obvious corollary that it's morally permissible to defend the things one controls with force (otherwise the concept of property would be pointless like, say, freedom of speech without a mouth or fingers). Colloquially, when we say "this object X is my property", what we are saying means "I am the only person who may morally decide who gets to use X, anyone else who uses subterfuge or violence to control X is morally wrong, and violent punishment of that person is morally legitimate."

Property arises because of scarcity and rivalrousness, attributes of the physical world par excellence.

  • Rivalrousness means that when a single person uses a good, it limits the ability for others to use that good simultaneously.  An apple or a Bitcoin are rivalrous, but an MP3 file is not.
  • Scarce resources are resources that are limited, meaning not enough for everyone to have.  Air is not scarce, but cars are.

These features of the world mean that deadly conflict is inevitable without objective rules to arbitrate who gets to use what, as no two people can use the same thing at the same time (for the most part -- some things are shareable, but even in that case, whoever uses the thing wears it out).

To arbitrate this conflict, human beings have come up with the concept of property -- a set of rules to determine who gets to exclusively control what things at what time. There are various sets of rules of property (Hoppean property being the only one that I consider logically consistent), but the point here is that property is just a set of ethical rules of behavior.

The notion of applying these rules (whatever they are) is tens of thousands of years old, and it predates all governments and all law; as unimportant as this may sound, this means that property is an ethical concept, rather than a legal one.

Living in a world where things are infinite

Imagine a world where everything other people have, you can have with zero effort; by just looking at it, it is insta-copied with zero resource expenditure, and the copy is 100% indistinguishable from the original. The only cost in this world, is the cost of coming up with new ideas to build -- the ideas would literally materialize as soon as they are wished. Imagine the implications of such a world.

Would it make sense, in a world like this, to say "this is my lawnmower"? No, of course not. The concept of property would be alien in such a world, because there is no conflict over scarce things. (Interestingly, you couldn't even say "this is my body", because long before you say "please don't rape me", a would-be "rapist" could have already wish-materialized a fully-functional duplicate of you, only with an insatiable lust for the "rapist". But I digress.)

The world of intangibles

Now what does that world remind you of?

Well, it's probably familiar to you because it exactly describes the realm of intangibles. Intangibles are not rivalrous, and today we can perfectly replicate an intangible at zero (marginal) cost. The only cost is the cost of coming up with new intangibles, and human beings do that every day already (they did before intellectual poverty, and they will continue to do so until intellectual poverty is a nightmare long abandoned). There is no conflict with intangibles, because when I come up with an intangible X, you can copy X to make X' (and store it in your head or your computer) without demerit or without depriving me of the use of my X. Thus, the rules of property can't apply -- there is no need to grant a specific person a monopoly over the use of an intangible.

So this is the very reality of the world, telling you that the concept of property is only valid when applied to scarce resources. In other words, to say "this intangible is my property" or "you have stolen this intangible" is an oxymoronic use of words not unlike saying "bad door! bad door!" if you stub your toe on the door edge.

So, if duplicating intangibles is not theft, then it is not unethical / not immoral. And, if duplicating intangibles is done peacefully, without breaching any promises consensually made to anyone, again, the act is not unethical / not immoral. We're simply drawing from common sense ethics here -- that which is not immoral, is perfectly permissible.

The ethics of intangibles

What does that mean for the ethics of duplicating intangibles? It means that duplicating intangibles (provided that the circumstances I just explained are true) must be either morally neutral or morally good.

What does that mean for the ethics of prosecuting people who duplicate intangibles? In a single sentence: it means that those who punish duplicators are aggressors, thus they are immoral, because prosecution involves the use of violence or threats to punish resistors. Yes, that is right, the act of punishing someone for the made-up sin of "copyright infringement" or "patent infringement" is clearly unethical. Again, drawing from common sense ethics here -- if a person threatens another person for a peaceful and consensual act, that's immoral, and that includes people who persecute peaceful duplicators.

The propaganda about intangibles

So why is the previous conclusion not universally acknowledged?

Little-known fact: corrupt people who benefit from intellectual poverty have waged a propaganda campaign and law-purchasing spree that borders on the billions of dollars of expenditure. The whole purpose of this campaign is to spread the lie that intangibles are scarce and that one ought to feel morally outraged when one witnesses someone peacefullly duplicating an intangible. This is not new -- it has been going on for centuries (search for Candlemakers' Plea and you will see for yourself).

Note how the propagandists never say falsehoods outright. They use framing and compounding. Thus, the lies are implied, so that they can make statements that assume the falsehoods that they want to be "true". They compound their lies like this, because they understand the power of the subconscious intellect -- how people subconsciously deduce the implicit premises from the explicit message. By repeating "Has X stopped beating his wife yet?" often enough, the assumption that X beats his wife gets cemented in the public's consciousness, and a lot of false ideas are spread this way. By framing the conversation in terms of "how much punishment should we inflict on duplicators?", they successfully elbow out attempts to question whether duplication is wrong at all, because that idea becomes a given in their narrative.

Oftentimes this propaganda will exploit ambiguity in terms. Let's take the example of the expression "It's mine!". It has two meanings: "This is my property" vis a vis "This I created". By conflating the two meanings, the propaganda makes it seem as if whatever you create is actually yours, when that's clearly not the case for the vast majority of the things you created; think of yourself building a chair with someone else's wood: whom does the chair belong to?

Needless to say, anyone who has seen this propaganda has noticed how violent and manipulative imagery and metaphors are used all the time to spread the beliefs of intellectual poverty. Quick question: since when did the truth require to be propagated using manipulative and violent imagery? Answer: since never -- the truth does not need propaganda to thrive, only lies do. You don't see people playing anti-rape or anti-murder ads, do you?

If abiding by intellectual poverty is so "ethical", why do intellectual povertarians need to spend billions of dollars drilling it into people's brains? If you think people are mostly good, then it stands to reason that they wouldn't need this propaganda constantly drilled into their brains -- they would just know not to "infringe" (which is the opposite of what you observe people doing). If you think people are mostly bad, then why are you making an ethical argument to begin with?

The "I worked for it, therefore I own it" argument

What about the common pseudo-argument "these thieves are depriving hard-working people of their hard-earned value / potential profits"? Well:

  1. You don't see a butter maker claiming "theft" when other butter makers make butter. There is no provable ethical theory that says "whatever idea you came up with, can only be exercised by you, and everyone else who attempts to compete by copying your idea, is evil". The only thing remotely close to this, is law (which dim-witted people use to fabricate their own pseudo-ethics). As you already know, laws are bought and sold to the highest bidder.
  2. Peaceful duplicators really aren't depriving anyone of "value". Value is subjective -- the value of an item is not contained in the item, but contained in the mind of the person who has it. Giving someone else a copy of an intangible doesn't affect the value of your copy, because the value of your copy is between you and your item only. The only thing that is lost with duplication is the perception of exclusivity of the item, which, in a world where everybody drives cookie-cutter cars (in no small part because of intellectual poverty), matters not. In sum: you do not have a moral claim to control others' minds and property.
  3. The ethical theory "using threats or violence to protect potential profits is morally good" is not valid. In fact, such a theory would necessarily contradict with your moral claim to use your own property peacefully and to protect it (a theory you already accept if you are in favor of intellectual poverty). In other words: since intangibles (including potential profits) are not property, you have no moral claim to prosecute or threaten anyone for the loss of profits.
  4. The "loss" of whatever profits you expected to recoup from your monopoly on an intangible, is substantially different from, say, the loss of a bounced paycheck. The first is an expectation set by a corrupt unilateral imposition, while the second is an expectation set by a mutual and consensual understanding (a contract) which is fraudulent (thus unethical) to break. Thus, allegations of fraud against duplicators have no basis. (See below for examples of contractual forms of intellectual agreements.)

Scarcity is a factor, yes. So what intellectual povertarians perceive when someone duplicates an intangible, is a decrease in the value they expected to extract from others. Which (a) is totally unfounded, as numerous economics studies and trials have proven, and (b) is a matter entirely in their own heads, so it doesn't justify punishment of others. Now, I don't fault them. Perhaps they worked very hard because of the promise that they would get a monopoly. However, that doesn't mean they have a right to increase their profits by threatening duplicators -- it only means that monopolizing ideas create false and immoral expectations, that make people invest their efforts in inefficient endeavors.

In a world without intellectual poverty, you wouldn't have people chasing monopolies and being sour grapes when someone threatens this corrupt promise. Musicians would understand that making a song is not a guarantee of perpetual income (just as making a chair isn't). Drug companies would try thousands of medicines that they have left by the wayside because they couldn't get a monopoly on those drugs anymore. And so on, and so forth, people would continue to live their lives, except without the greed-generating, rent-seeking, corrupt, and destructive influence that intellectual poverty has on them.

Intellectual monopolies without copyright

So what about "conditional intellectual property"? Sure. If you buy something, and during the purchase you are clearly informed that the purchase is conditional to you not sharing that which you are buying, of course you are obligated to fulfill that contract, and you are in violation of said contract if you share it.

Now, if you break the contract, of course, the third party who received it is not liable (unless it can be demonstrated he was aware that he was being an accomplice of breach of contract). So this means that you might need to brand your sold unshareable intangibles with unique identifiers. Nothing new -- iTunes does that already.

I love this concept, because it means that people actually get told what the cost of sharing is -- maybe a couple extra dollars per purchase? -- rather than some politicians retroactively inventing new punishments won a whim and fully paid-off. You have the option to opt-in to sharing or not sharing, and you decide whether the extra price of the permission to share is worth your trouble.


As my girlfriend said (and Jeffrey Tucker confirms), an intellectual povertarian is the proverbial middle-school girl who doesn't want anybody else to wear the same dresses, thinking that her value is created by her uniqueness, and is consequently reduced when someone else wears the same dresses. People who evolve past intellectual poverty see this middle-school event, not as an affront, but as a marvelous example of how a human being can leave his mark in the world, and influence it for the better.

If you made it to here, I have a reward for you: :-D