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The Right To Ideas

Robin Hanson is apparently the kind of libertarian who believes in government-created monopolies over the use of ideas:

You have no fundamental right to enjoy the innovations produced by others without compensating them. You owe them, at least your gratitude. Yes for now it may be best to let you take innovations freely without paying, since the alternative seems too expensive. But you have no right to expect that situation to last forever, any more than ranchers had a right to expect they could forever let their animals trample nearby farms.

I’m not really sure what sense the term “fundamental right” is being used here. But I’m always curious how far people want to press that kind of theory. Are we sad that Isaac Newton was unable to patent a method for calculating instantaneous rates of change? Does Hanson think he should be paying royalties to Michael Spence every time he writes about signaling? Obviously, people who come up with smart ideas have the right to not share those ideas with the world. But the idea that a person, having shared his ideas with the world, now has the right to call the cops and have people arrested for taking inspiration from the idea without paying for a license in advance seems odd. Which is exactly why historically government regulation of idea-copying has been the exception rather than the rule. Maybe some of those exceptions have done some good. But the trend toward every stronger IP rules seems to me very difficult to explain as progressive vindication of some kind of natural right to not have your ideas imitated.

My own ideas on this particular subject (and of course other subjects) are deeply indebted to the thinking of others, and I like to think that in my work I’ve also influenced other people’s thinking. It’s all to the good that this pattern of mutual influence occurs without licensing agreements. The lack of “incentive” to innovate with new ideas isn’t holding me back nearly as much as I would be held back by inability to borrow ideas from other people.

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