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IP Laws and Apples

May 10, 2011

This is from a discussion I recently participated in.  It’s a reply to a post that attempts to use an apple as an analogy to explain Intellectual monopoly laws.  First an excerpt from the conversation (sorry for the language):

I know that incentive is a huge reason (the main one) for having IP laws, but that’s letting consequences guide morals. It’s like saying “it’s only wrong to steal something if it disincentivizes the creator”, rather than saying “stealing is wrong”. I guess that works if you’re a consequentialist/utilitarian, but what about people like me?

I don’t care about the incentive. That’s no way to write laws. For instance, why not make a law that says it’s okay to steal apples as long as you plant the seeds? Sure, we might end up with more apple trees, and thus more apples, but stealing had to occur for that to happen. The original owner of the apple got f***ed by that law, just as content consumers get f***ed by IP laws.

Now obviously the writer is against IP laws, so we are in agreement there. However, I had to chime in about one thing:

I agree with your sentiments completely – I just have a comment about your summary. IP laws work exactly the opposite way your example suggests. Here’s a more correct analogy:

You buy an apple from me. You paid for every part of the apple and normally could do anything you want with it including plant the seeds. However I convinced the government to give me “IP” rights to that apple. Now, if you plant the seeds you are “stealing” apples from me – Not only are you stealing every apple that will ever grow on any tree that grows from those seeds, but you are also stealing any apples that grow from any further seeds planted from seeds from the illegally produced apples.

You are also stealing from me by preventing me from artificially inflating my price because if I limit what I plant to decrease supply, people will get the apples you stole from me (by planting seeds) instead of buying my “legal” apples at my monopoly price.

Finally, you are stealing from me by preventing me from eliminating that type of apple from the market so it doesn’t compete with my newer, “seedless” apples, which I can confidently sell without worrying about thieves like you destroying my monopoly and forcing my children to drink “domestic” champagne.

I hope you don’t mind the quibble – I just wanted to make sure we were comparing “apples to apples” 🙂

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