Intellectual property restrictions represent one of the most divisive issues of the day, even among the libertarian community. These days, it seems as if the anti-IP crowd is in the majority, and gaining ground. I fall in the pro-IP camp myself, although it isn’t a very big issue for me. Generally, I agree with Rothbard’s famous defense of patents and copyrights, that they represent conditions that buyers agree to when purchasing a work, and thus are a form of contract. As he explains in Man, Economy, and State:
“Let us consider copyright. A man writes a book or composes music. When he publishes the book or sheet of music, he imprints on the first page the word “copyright.” This indicates that any man who agrees to purchase this product also agrees as part of the exchange not to recopy or reproduce this work for sale. In other words, the author does not sell his property outright to the buyer; he sells it on condition that the buyer not reproduce it for sale. Since the buyer does not buy the property outright, but only on this condition, any infringement of the contract by him or a subsequent buyer is implicit theft and would be treated accordingly on the free market. The copyright is therefore a logical device of property right on the free market.”
Of course, the anti-IP crowd doesn’t see it this way, and many, in an attempt to prove just how serious they are, advocate the free sharing of their own work. One of the most commonly used devices for this end is the Creative Commons licensing system. As far as I can tell, the most commonly used creative commons license is also the least restrictive, in that it allows free sharing, distribution, and use, only requiring attribution. From the Creative Commons website:
“This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.”
Seems significantly different from a traditional copyright, doesn’t it? However, if you look closely, you might see that is based upon the same logic as Rothbard’s contract theory. The creative commons license does not give completely unrestricted access to one’s work, ideas, or “words on a page.” It too imposes a condition, namely, attribution. So what happens if someone chooses not to attribute? If they pass the work off as their own? Presumably, the original author is prepared to use force against them in order to rectify the situation, much as the holder of a copyright uses force to prevent someone from copying their work.
Any author, musician, or artist who truly believes that ideas should be free and that intellectual property restrictions are illegitimate should not bother to utilize a Creative Commons license, as this license operates under the same logic and legal framework that a copyright does. If you would like your work to truly be free, simply release it to the public domain (Creative Commons has a resource for that as well). To attach the pre-condition of attribution to a work simply shows that you agree with Rothbard’s principle of a contract between the buyer and seller that the buyer agrees to abide by the seller’s preconditions. If I am expected to honor your condition of attribution, then you should be expected to honor the pre-condition of not copying or sharing materials that is required by most copyright holders.