Property: A Prelude
By: Barry Belmont

It seems that we so-called libertarians have a few questions we need to answer. One of the biggest dilemmas highlighted at our previous meeting, Intellectual Property Rights, was apparently how to define “property” and how “intellectual property” is akin to this “property.” A rather sad minority of us really grasped what property should mean. In point of fact, much of the club wanted to resort to what Wikipedia had to say on the issue. This is a pathetic and lackluster way to establish the essence of property.

As I will be giving a lecture March 25 which will rely heavily upon the idea of property rights (the lecture itself is about Austrian Economics), I feel it is necessary to give just a taste of what is to come. Consider briefly the necessity of these things for the existence of property:

1. Land – By this it is meant that property must come from some natural resource. You can replace this term with “raw material” or “malleable good” or whatever should so happen to suit your fancy. The idea behind it is basically that in order to be property it needs to be “something” which can be manipulated, controlled, etc. In other words property must be some combination of your “land” with your

2. Labor – Simple and easy bullet point of most theories of property. This is the idea that one must do something to Something in order to claim that Something as their own. Hardly anyone would say by simply walking across an open field that it belongs to you, but if one were to tiller and enrich the soil, well, then, maybe that field might become yours. But only if this mixture of land and labor has

3. Excludability – This seems to be the big one that no one quite pinned down. Tons of other ideas were bandied about from “intrinsic value” to “reasonable use” to “intent to profit” at our Intellectual Property Rights meeting, but each of these misses the key point. In order for someone to claim dominion over something — for instance, our tilled field — it must be possible to exclude others from it. If this condition isn’t satisfied, then something cannot be owned. We can put a fence around our field, hence it is excludable, thus it is able to be owned.

But can anyone really be excluded from using the alphabet or the positive integers or Newton’s second law? No. But  by the same logic can anyone be excluded from the idea of the steam engine or the chemical formulation of aspirin? There is no Platonic ideal that people can claim dominion over. No one owns the idea of the iPod: people simply own iPods and the means to make iPods. This is because the information — what is “intellectual property” but a claim over information? — exists and is nonexcludable. Newton couldn’t claim to own his laws because his laws, as information, are unownable.

Maybe this’ll help.

Probably not.

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