Not everything you work for, you own

published Feb 27, 2009, last modified Jul 20, 2020

Intellectual property defenders talk about the fact that you "created your idea" or "put labor in your invention" as the reason why they own these ideas and inventions. They are wrong.

Consider the forging of a sword. If I own some raw metal (because I mined it from ground I owned), then I own the same metal after I have shaped it into a sword. I do not need to rely on the fact of creation to own the sword, but only on my ownership of the factors used to make the sword.73 And I do not need creation to come to own the factors, since I can homestead them by simply mining them from the ground and thereby becoming the first possessor. On the other hand, if I fashion a sword using your metal, I do not own the resulting sword. In fact, I may owe you damages for trespass or conversion.

Creation, therefore, is neither necessary nor sufficient to establish ownership. The focus on creation distracts from the crucial role of first occupation as a property rule for addressing the fundamental fact of scarcity. First occupation, not creation or labor, is both necessary and sufficient for the homesteading of unowned scarce resources.

One reason for the undue stress placed on creation as the source of property rights may be the focus by some on labor as the means to homestead unowned resources. This is manifest in the argument that one homesteads unowned property with which one mixes one’s labor because one “owns” one’s labor. However, as Palmer correctly points out, “occupancy, not labor, is the act by which external things become property.” By focusing on first occupancy, rather than on labor, as the key to homesteading, there is no need to place creation as the fount of property rights, as Objectivists and others do. Instead, property rights must be recognized in first-comers (or their contractual transferees) in order to avoid the omnipresent problem of conflict over scarce resources. Creation itself is neither necessary nor sufficient to gain rights in unowned resources. Further, there is no need to maintain the strange view that one “owns” one’s labor in order to own things one first occupies. Labor is a type of action, and action is not ownable; rather, it is the way that some tangible things (e.g., bodies) act in the world.

The problem with the natural rights defense of IP, then, lies in the argument that because an author-inventor “creates” some “thing,” he is “thus” entitled to own it. The argument begs the question by assuming that the ideal object is ownable in the first place; once this is granted, it seems natural that the “creator” of this piece of property is the natural and proper owner of it. However, ideal objects are not ownable. [...] . It is not because the labor must be rewarded, nor because we “own” labor and “therefore” its fruits. In other words, creation and labor-mixing indicate when one has occupied—and, thus, homesteaded—unowned scarce resources.

This is why the expression "intellectual property" is a misnomer.  Ownership stems from occupancy, not labor.  Labor is neither a necessary, nor a sufficient condition to own the products of it.  For once, you can toil away making statues with others' marble blocks, they still aren't your statues, no matter how much labor you put into them.  And finally, ideas are impossible to own, because they are not scarce and cannot be occupied.

More quotations in the fabulous book Against Intellectual Property.