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February 10, 2006

The New Anti-IP Bolsheviks


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How many of you have seen the movie Dr. Zhivago? (All women’s hands go up). Yes, I know that it’s a chick flick, but it’s not a chick flick without any redeeming virtues, like Dirty Dancing or Fried Green Tomatoes.

There’s a particular scene in the movie that I’ve never forgotten. We all understand in principle how awful communism was, but it never quite gripped me the way it did when watching in the movie where the Bolsheviks came to the door and simply took their house away from them.

It didn’t matter that it was their house, that they owned it, that they had paid for it. It didn’t matter, because after the revolution, there was no such thing as private property. It’s not that a bunch of thugs came and took their house and kept it for themselves; no, a bunch of thugs came and took their house and gave it to the state.

There was a very important philosophical reason why they did that. One of the key tenets of communism is that the public does not benefit from privately-owned property. Under this mentality, the only way the public as a whole can benefit from things is if they are somehow publically-owned, rather than privately-owned.

This is a key distinction between communism and market capitalism. Under capitalism, we understand that private property is the key to the whole system. Markets don’t work unless property rights are protected. Under capitalism, the public benefits enormously from private ownership of goods, in part because it makes markets possible. With the right to property, people have incentive to work, save, create, and invent. If you know that you have the right to profit from your work or creativity and to retain at least the bulk of your profit, you will produce more than you consume and the benefits will flow to your fellow citizens.

But under communism, the belief was that if something was privately-owned, it was walled-off from the public, and the public could not benefit. Under communism, the only way the public could benefit from things was if they were taken out of private hands and put into public hands.

Well, we all know how that worked out. The competition between capitalism and communism has been held. Communism failed, and capitalism won. It’s clear that capitalism works and that communism didn’t. In fact, it’s so clear that China is trying to maintain a totalitarian regime while jettisoning communism and adopting capitalism.

But, if you’ve been paying attention, for the last several years you’ve started hearing these same disproven arguments being made—that when something is privately-owned, it is walled-off from society. That the public is being deprived of wonderful and important things because they are privately-owned. That a whole category of property should be expropriated from its owners and given over to “the public.” That somehow it’s wrong for people to own particular kinds of goods, to control how those goods are used, and to profit from their ownership of those goods.

But these arguments primarily aren’t being made about physical property—they’re being made about intellectual property: copywritten music, movies and TV shows; patented pharmaceuticals; computer games, software, and electronic books.

We’re being told by some that creativity and innovation are being stifled by copyright, and that somehow people who spend millions of dollars creating intellectual property goods should not have the right to own them—that their software code should be taken away from them and made public; that patents on pharmaceuticals are somehow responsible for people dying; that when someone owns the copyright on a song or a movie or a tv program, they shouldn’t be allowed to stop people from stealing that content over the Internet.

Lately, when the U.S. has been negotiating free trade agreements, the U.S. has insisted that the countries on the other side of the agreement agree to protect intellectual property. This is entirely appropriate, because markets don’t work where property rights are not protected. But left-wing activists have called this “cultural imperialism.”

This new anti-intellectual property movement goes by several names: the free culture movement, public knowledge, access to knowledge, the free software movement. But whatever you call it, this movement is nothing more than communism for intellectual property. They believe that ownership of intellectual property is harmful to the public. They make exactly the same arguments and have the very same philosophy that the communists had about tangible property.

Their arguments and rhetoric are sometimes appealing. You’ll hear things like “information wants to be free.” Who could possibly object to a “creative commons,” or “public access to knowledge”? But behind the rhetoric is a dangerous and damaging anti-property philosophy that would sink our economy if it becomes implemented into law, or if it permeates our culture.

Why is this new assault on intellectual property important? Well, let me ask you: Are you planning a career working on an assembly line doing the same thing over and over again? Are you looking forward to stamping out widgets, or assembling things like Santa’s little elves? I didn’t think so.

Chances are you’re planning to work in a field that you think is growing, where there are good prospects for the future. Software, or high-tech equipment. Communications. And if it’s growing, it’s probably somehow involved with designing and creating and selling new things, or creating content. And somewhere in that industry there are people who are inventing new things. If that company can’t copyright or patent its inventions, they won’t need you.

But beyond the importance of IP to your own personal economic prospects, if you’re a patriotic American, you must understand that IP protection is critical to the continued global competitiveness of the U.S. economy.

Today, intellectual property is the most important growth driver in the U.S. economy. IP industries contribute nearly 40% of the growth of the economy, and almost 60% of the growth in U.S. exports. The IP industries are among the largest and highest-paying employers in the country, employing 18 million workers who earn on average nearly 40% more than all U.S. workers.

More than ever before, the U.S. economy is dependent on innovation. We no longer can compete with the rest of the world on cheap labor and low-cost manufacturing. For the most part, we will no longer be the people who crank out widgets. We will be the people who design and invent and create new products and services that the rest of the world wants and needs. And intellectual property is how you institutionalize human creativity.

The conservative movement has not necessarily always had good relationships with some of the IP industries. We’ve not always been happy with some of what the movie and TV industries have produced, and we’re frequently not happy with much of what the recording industry produces. Some of the computer games are too violent, and it’s sometimes hard for us to understand why medicines cost so much.

There are frequent efforts on Capitol Hill these days to weaken our IP protection, such as attempts to weaken the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, attempts to undo the Supreme Court’s Grokster decision, or attempts to make political gain by bashing pharmaceutical companies.

But it would be a major mistake for the conservative movement to abandon the defense of intellectual property just because we don’t always like the products of intellectual property, or because IP protection inconveniences us. If we want to be secure, both economically and militarily, we need to be the people who are inventing new things—new software, new hardware, new technology. Frankly, we no longer have the best educated workforce. We don’t have the most competitive tax policy anymore, and we’re about to be buried under the weight of a burden of entitlement spending. The only reason our economy is so productive is because of the technological advantages we have gained through our culture of innovation, and our culture of innovation is the only chance we have to remain globally competitive.

Property protection has always been a hallmark of the conservative movement, and it’s critically important that intellectual property protection be one of our key policy priorities going forward into the future. Thank you.


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