How Should Libertarians Think About Intellectual Property?

Brink Lindsey, Sasha Moss, Wayne Brough, Eli Dourado, and Nick Gillespie talk patents and copyrights in the digital age.


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Libertarians have long been divided on the subject of intellectual property such as patents and copyright. Does natural law extend to intellectual property rights, just like "real property" rights? Or is IP just another government-granted monopoly that limits freedom?

The Progress Clause of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress authority to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." During the Constitutional Convention, this provision was adopted by an overwhelming vote and with little debate. But IP was much more limited at the nation's founding than it is today.

In fact, copyright terms are now 580 percent longer than at the start of the 19th century and patents are now granted for software, designs, and business methods that don't look anything like the traditional definition of "inventions."

How should libertarians regard the current legal and regulatory framework and does it help or hinder progress in the digital age? And when considering reform, how can policymakers balance the interests of creators while limiting the potential for regulatory capture and industry-driven cronyism?

On October 8, 2015, R Street and Reason co-hosted a discussion on the pitfalls and merits of intellectual property at Reason's DC offices. Joining the panel was Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute, Wayne Brough of FreedomWorks, Eli Dourado of the Mercatus Center, and Sasha Moss of R Street Institute. The discussion was moderated by Reason's Nick Gillespie.

Related: Check out Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch's take on IP during "What's Your Take on IP & Net Neutrality?" during Ask a Libertarian day.

Edited by Joshua Swain. Cameras by Swain and Todd Krainin.

About 26 minutes.

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