Consequences of Intellectual Property Laws
Many evils result from the laws that legitimize this false category of property. “The love of money is the root of all manner of evil.” And this is all about the love of money.
First, these laws tend to work against the man who develops a useful idea and is only looking to make an honest profit from making and selling products incorporating it. For he may be sued, and find that his idea is really “someone else’s” (legally speaking). Then he may not only be prevented from using it; but he may be ordered to destroy any of his products that incorporate the idea. The possibility of financial ruin is real.
Second, patents creates monopolies that allow the holders to artificially raise the prices of items, processes or features that are patented. They also give the patent holder a head start in the race to win the largest share of the market for items that contain the patented feature. Potential competitors may never have a chance to catch up, even should they invent a viable alternative of their own.
Third, it slows the implementation of really useful ideas by creating a legal obstacle course for new products. The cost of lawyers and the bureaucracy is a burden of time and money. This burden must be sustained by someone, along with that of law enforcement, if the patent system is to continue. It creates a whole new area of law — one that is ideally suited to covetous men who lust for overnight riches. Don’t we have enough lawyers and litigation? Huge sums are awarded in patent and copyright lawsuits. Who pays? Ultimately, society at large.
Fourth, it distorts the natural distribution of labor, diverting people from useful labor to less useful work that can be made more profitable through the exploitation of intellectual property laws. The human resources of any society are finite, and the fewer people that are employed in ways that enrich the entire society, the poorer and weaker the society. Modern technological society wastes precious human skills and labor at an unprecedented rate, by diverting labor from important and beneficial occupations — like farming and making of necessary goods — to the production of luxuries and entertainments. By attracting people away from more useful labor for the sake of promoting innovations for profit, the distortion is exacerbated.
The Destructive Pace of Change
Fifth, these laws have artificially accelerated the pace of change in society beyond the capacity of human beings. In the past, the motivation for technological change was entirely different. New tools were developed by the worker for the worker. A new tool may have allowed him to work faster or to do a better job, or may just have made the same job less painful to do. If someone else saw the tool, the owner probably would brag on it — and be flattered to see someone else make one like it for himself. Really useful changes would tend to spread. Useless changes would be rejected. Change was slow and beneficial. There was no difficulty in adapting. Society remained highly stable.
One of the gravest dangers we face today is the pace of technological change, and the rate of change in everything else that results from it. We are doing things that have never been done, and we are doing them without giving a thought to the accumulated consequences of so many changes. Not only are we risking some massive miscalculation that will plague us for generations — we are creating a world without any stable social structures to guide us. Life in the technological society is increasingly like being in an MTV video — continuously flashing images without coherence or comfort. The institutions that give life meaning were never designed to deal with constant and forceful changes such as we are faced with. Society is disintegrating as a result.
This author is not advocating disobedience to the existing laws. They embody the only mechanism now in place for the compensation of countless people for their labor. In many cases the amounts people are able to secure through the system are excessive, but that is not the point. Christians must support the right of people to compensation for their labor, and therefore must support those laws which serve that purpose until better laws can be implemented.
Scripture the Judge of Human Law
But Christians must return to the Bible as their basis for judging the morality of all human laws. Without a common belief in the relevance and authority of Biblical law, we cannot possibly withstand the false and destructive ideologies of the world around us. If we are going to let the world define the basic categories of thought, we may as well give up the claim to be governed by Scripture.
Originally published as “The Consequences of Intellectual Property Laws”, part 10 of “A Christian Agrarian Critique of Technological Society” in Foundations 1:10, August 20, 2002