Intellectual Property is About Consumers

Sonny Bunch from the America’s Future Foundation got very upset with my post on the music industry writing:

No! False! The purpose of intellectual property law has very little to do with Matt Yglesias being able to enjoy a wide variety of new music. The purpose of intellectual property law is to protect the intellectual property created by artists so they are rewarded for their efforts. The purpose of intellectual property law is to punish people who steal that which isn’t theirs.

Yes, copyright was created in part because there were concerns that authors wouldn’t bother creating new work if they were consistently stolen from, leading to Yglesias’s oddly solipsistic reading of intellectual property law. But, more importantly, copyright law evolved because we think that artists, writers, musicians, and others have a right to profit from their labors. It’s a crazy idea, I know.

He’s being sarcastic, but that is, in fact, an absolutely insane idea. The point of intellectual property law is to benefit consumers, not producers. I don’t really want to turn this into an ideological food fight, so I’m eager to note that libertarians like Julian Sanchez and Tim Lee have the right take on this. I note that this issue is specifically addressed in the Constitution, which says that patents and copyrights should be granted “for limited times” — i.e., not as a transcendent moral right — in order “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts,” again, not as a matter of transcendent moral right.


I think bringing this up in the context of the music industry seems to have confused the issue, as Bunch is very upset at what he terms “the pro-piracy, illegally-downloading-music-is-okay crowd” which I wouldn’t say I’m part of. So let’s think about something else — pharmaceuticals. Does Bunch think it’s a terrible affront to the moral rights of pharma researchers that there are generically available drugs? Does he want to see ibuprofen and penicillin and measles vaccines taken off the market? That’s crazy. As I think everyone agrees, the object of pharmaceutical patent & pricing policy is to balance the desire for medicines to be widely available and the desire to ensure that there are financial incentives for new research. Some people think we should sharply curb pharma patents and finance research some other way (prizes, more public funding) but everyone agrees that the welfare of patients, rather than pharma executives, is the legitimate point of policy.

With music and books and movies and it’s all the same. Intellectual property rights are created to ensure the existence of a supply of works for people to enjoy.