In the middle of the 16th century, Queen Mary was faced with a difficult question that was brought to her by none other than most powerful publishing house in England at the time. The Stationers, like any other craft guild in the business of printing and producing books loved a monopoly in the profits of their books and terribly feared competition. Therefore, they went to Queen Mary with the request of a royal charter. This charter would allow them to seize illicit editions of their books and bar the publication of books unlicensed by the crown. The Queen suddenly thought that this could indeed be a more efficient way to squash sedition and dissent through censorship by puppeteering this craft guild than previous, perhaps less subtle means like torture and death. In 1557, she granted them this early form of a copyright. Notice how the author or the creator of the work has no place in this agreement and the origins of intellectual property in English law are based on privilege, namely power and profit. This rhetoric, however, changes with the coming of the 18th century and the passing of the Act of Anne in 1707 to one of creativity and learning. The concern for the author has a steady positivist rise after this in the tug of war over intellectual property. In the case Miller v Taylor in 1769, the author sought to extend copyright to common law. Three judges ruled in favour of this motion and two judges ruled against. A closer examination at the reasoning provided by the three assenting judges will tell us almost all the philosophical justifications of intellectual property. The first judge called upon his notion of justice and said it is just that the author control the destiny of his work as it is a product of his labour. The second judge said that extending the copyright would encourage creativity by making the work the creator’s property. The third judge said it is the authors natural right as the work wouldn’t exist if not for the mental labour of the author. Together, justice, incentives and natural rights are the cornerstones of the justifications of intellectual property. Although history is littered with theories on property, there have been only sparse discussions on intellectual property. The question then arises, can intellectual property be accommodated within normal property. The similarity is in the fact that intellectual property is also a relationship between people but the difference lies in the fact that the object is an abstract one. This leads many to believe that it cannot be subject to the same rules of property. The first dissenting judge in Miller v Taylor, for example, said that abstract ideas cannot be occupied like corporeal objects so they cannot be property. He said the author deserves a reward which the Act of Anneprovides in the form of limited monopoly but that’s about it. In fact, an idea is almost the perfect example of a resource like the air or light that is not zero sum and inexhaustible in that my use of it doesn’t take away from your use of it. Neither air nor light can become personal property which leaves ideas in a property limbo. This leaves room for very interesting discussions and debates over the existence of intellectual property and the place it should occupy in the society. This discourse has largely taken two forms: the deontological and the consequentialist. Deontological justifications for intellectual property come from a priori reasons like rights or duties which can be established in many forms. There is the ontological basis for rights which answers questions like whether rights exist and if so, where they come from. One of the preeminent figures in this discourse has been John Locke, an English philosopher whose argument for individual property as “natural rights” remains relevant even today when applied to intellectual property. Locke’s major assumptions in his claim were:

a) God has given the world to people in common.

b) Every person owns his/her own personality.

c) A person’s labour belongs to him/her.

d) When a person mixes his labour with something in the commons he makes it his/her property.

e) The right of property is contingent upon its being good for commoners.

In order to extend this argument, Locke says that exclusive ownership of a resource is a precondition for production. Ideas before laboured upon by people, however, are not exclusively owned which resists the cross application of his ideas to intellectual property. Another impediment in extending the natural right to intellectual property is the 5thassumption. Intellectual labour, in annexing an idea, stops it from becoming a part of the intellectual commons. If this labour, armed with the property of becoming property is doing a disservice to society, then it may not be a natural right at all. The notion that ideas are a part of the intellectual commons is also one that needed evidence and Locke found that in scripture as Judeo-Christian philosophy clearly advocates the idea of all worldly resources being part of the commons. Hegel, on the other hand, took the route of personality theory. He argued that if individuals have claims to anything, they had to be considered an individual first. He states that in order to be individuals, people must have a moral claim to things like their character traits, feelings, talents and experience. The definition of these aspects or the process of self-actualization requires an interaction with tangible and intangible objects in the world. The external actualization process requires property that includes intellectual property for Hegel as he sees the works as an extension or an establishment of the self in the external world that embody the person’s personality in an inseparable and even immortal way. The consequentialist justifications of IP assume that the specious connection between IP and creativity is fact and warn of a chilling effect on creative activity in the absence of IP. History shows us that the relationship between IP and creativity is local and contingent rather than necessary and universal. Imperial China, for example, was a creative and inventive empire that gave rise to many technologies and artistic sub-cultures without any promise of IP. Indeed, Marx’s historical materialism could be seen as condemning IP as a superstructural phenomenon in the industrial development phase of capitalist societies and one that a future society can function well without. If one was interested in the consequentialist debate over IP, then historical empirical data would be more important than an a priori analysis. The lack of a definitive philosophical, ethical or normative justification for the existence of Intellectual Property rights unlike those for free expression or equal treatment under the law shows us that its application needs to be tempered with other considerations. If, as Rawls suggested, we hide behind the veil of ignorance and tried to form an ideal society, then IP may not feature within it as it tends to create social stratification and further marginalizes the least advantaged in social life and democratic culture (Murphy, 2012). Since IP’s are liberty intrusive privileges that do not “allow the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all.” or “benefit the least advantaged.” or are “open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”, their utilitarian claims of creativity have to answer to the injustices that manifest from them before they get a carte blanche in society. Intellectual Property Rights are of different types, namely: Copyrights, Patents and Trademarks. We will discuss about these in the next sections.

Last modified: Monday, 19 April 2021, 11:59 AM