The Copyright Monopoly Is a Limitation of Property Rights

Opinion

The copyright monopoly is not a property right. It is a limitation of property rights. Copyright is a government-sanctioned private monopoly that limits what people may do with things they have legitimately bought.

chairAll too often, we hear the copyright lobby talk about theft, about property, about how they are robbed of something when someone makes a copy. This is, well, factually incorrect. It is a use of words that are carefully chosen to communicate that the copyright monopoly is property, or at the very least comparable to property rights.

This is only rhetoric from the copyright lobby in an attempt to justify the monopoly as righteous: to associate “the copyright monopoly” with a positive word such as “property”. However, when we look at the monopoly in reality, it is a limitation of property rights.

Let’s compare two pieces of property: a chair and a DVD.

When I buy a chair, I hand over money for which I get the chair and a receipt. This chair has been mass-produced from a master copy at some sort of plant. After the money has changed hands, this particular chair is mine. There are many more like it, but this one is mine. I have bought one of many identical copies and the receipt proves it.

As this copy of the chair is mine, exclusively mine, there are a number of things I can do with it. I can take it apart and use the pieces for new hobby projects, which I may choose to sell, give away, put out as exhibits or throw away. I can put it out on the porch and charge neighbors for using it. I can examine its construction, produce new chars from my deductions with some raw material that is also my property, and do whatever I like with the new chairs, particularly including selling them.

All of this is normal for property. It is mine; I may do what I like with it. Build copies, sell, display, whatever.

As a sidetrack, this assumes that there are no patents on the chair. However, assuming that the invention of the chair is older than 20 years, any filed patents on this particular invention have expired. Therefore, patents are not relevant for this discussion.

Now, let’s jump to what happens when I buy a movie.

When I buy a movie, I hand over money and I get the DVD and a receipt. This movie has been mass-produced from a master copy at some sort of plant. After the money has changed hands, this particular movie is mine. There are many more like it, but this one is mine. I have bought one of many identical copies and the receipt proves it.

Despite the fact that this copy of the movie is mine, exclusively mine, there are a number of things that I may not do with it, prohibited from doing so by the copyright monopoly held by somebody else. I may not use pieces of the movie for new hobby projects that I sell, give away, or put out as exhibits. I may not charge the neighbors for using it on the porch. I may not examine its construction and produce new copies. All of these rights would be normal for property, but the copyright monopoly is a severe limitation on my property rights for items I have legitimately bought.

It is not possible to say that I own the the DVD when viewed in one way but not when viewed in another. There is a clear definition of property, and the receipt says I own the DVD in all its interpretations and aspects. Every part of the shape making up the DVD is mine. The copyright monopoly, however, limits how I can use my own property.

This doesn’t inherently mean that the copyright monopoly is bad. It does, however, mean that the monopoly cannot be defended from the standpoint that property rights are good. If you take your stand from there, you will come to the conclusion that the copyright monopoly is bad as it is a limitation of property rights.

Defending the copyright monopoly with the justification that property rights are sacred is quite like defending the death penalty for murder with the justification that life is sacred. There may be other, valid, justifications for defending the copyright monopoly and these limitations of property rights — but that particular chain of logic just doesn’t hold.

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Rick Falkvinge is a regular columnist on TorrentFreak, sharing his thoughts every other week. He is the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, a whisky aficionado, and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. His blog at http://falkvinge.net focuses on information policy.

Follow Rick Falkvinge on Twitter as @Falkvinge and on Facebook as /rickfalkvinge.

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