The Cato Institute sponsored a program yesterday, Intellectual Property and First Principles, on the differing opinions of conservatives and libertarians on intellectual property [sic]. The conservative argued that copyright was a natural right and therefore intellectual property was indeed property worthy of government protection. The libertarian, on the other hand, argued that copyright is a creation of Congress— a grant of limited monopoly rights. Just like the post office (Article I, Section 8, Clause 9), copyright (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8) is a government program.
I agreed with the libertarian. This means that Congress determines if copyright even exists. Congress has the authority to change the law, although most changes seem to benefit only a select group of people (consider term extension, DMCA, “automatic” copyright protection and so on).
There was also some discussion about abandoning property. People in my neighborhood tend to abandon property by leaving beds, couches and Lazy Boys in their front yards in the hope that someone will take the property, saving them a trip to the dump. Sometimes to encourage the taking and clarify intent, a sign will be posted or pinned to the property, “free” (or if you really want to get rid of it, “$10.”) This led to a pondering: if copyright is property, can you abandon it? If copyright is a natural right, how do you abandon yourself? After flashing to the old Calgon commercial (“take me away”), I was thinking about people just lying in their front yards, “Take me, please. Save me a trip to the dump. Free.”
Putting all silliness aside, the real reason for this post is a reminder that copyright exists “to advance the progress of science and useful arts.” The Framers believed that by giving creators monopoly rights, they would more likely make their creative works and inventions available to the public thereby benefiting society as a whole. Therefore, exclusive rights should only be as broad as they need be to incentivize creation. It is as simple as that. During this multi-year copyright review, might the House Judiciary subcommittee consider tailoring back copyright for the greater good or will they abandon the public interest and leave it in the front yard?