The Unbearable Tragedy of Intellectual Property
When I was a child I shared a bedroom with my younger brother. He slept on the bottom of the bunk bed and I slept on the top. We faced the near-universal problem that we couldn’t reach the light switch from our beds and so had to get out of bed to turn off the lights at night, and then try to make our way back to the bed through the maze of toys and nonsense that littered our room.
When I was about 10 years old, my brother came up with a novel solution to this, the most intolerable of first-world problems. He fashioned a finger out of clay and put it on the end of a stick that he had picked up in bushes behind our house. This extended his reach and enabled him to turn off the light from the comfort of his bed. Not only was this an effective way to turn off the light, it was also pretty hilarious.
Almost immediately after he introduced this technological marvel, I realized it had a few shortcomings that I could overcome by making a few changes to his design.
The first problem was that he used blue clay, so his finger didn’t look so much like a finger. It looked more like a lump of blue clay (which, as an aside, it was). The second problem was the stick – it was dirty and the flaky bark got everywhere. Also, it didn’t have any kind of handle, and was somewhat difficult to control with precision. Trying to get the tiny finger-shaped lump of dough to hit the light switch in just the right place was almost impossible. It was clumsy and frustrating – kind of like my first sexual experience. Actually it was a lot like that. A lot of poking around trying to get just the right spot. The fumbling… so much fumbling. The whispered apologies, the downward glances. Anyway you get the point. It sucked.
So almost immediately I got to work creating an improved version of the product. When my mom heard about my plans, she asked me to stop. My brother was excited about his project, and she didn’t want me to make him feel bad. The age difference between us was enough that my version of his product would have been a lot nicer than his. She asked me to just let him enjoy developing his invention without feeling pressured by me. And so I did. It was no big deal. After a few days, his finger-switcher-offer broke and we forgot about it.
This is a clunky allegory for State-enforced intellectual property law. The State acts as the mommy in terms of protecting the ideas of one producer from being copied, improved, and transformed by other producers. This may make the original creator feel good about himself, but in the end it stifles progress and hurts all of us.
In my childhood experience, we were unable to enjoy the use of a well-designed version of the finger. We were stuck with what was nothing more than a prototype, and which, incidentally, was never developed further by my brother.
Had I been free, as a producer, to develop a competing product based on my brother’s original design, both he and I as consumers would have benefitted. Perhaps he would have found flaws in my design and produced a new version of his.
But that didn’t happen. His design was never successful and we stopped using it. To this day I have to get out of bed to turn off the overhead light. Like some kind of goddamn animal. Intellectual freedom could have made us both millionaires many times over. The State’s intellectual tyranny is no different.