Typically, June is not the month to be thinking about reindeers, snowmen and certainly not Mariah Carey. But the Queen of Christmas is back in the headlines, aften being sued for copyright infringement over her hit single ‘All I want For Christmas Is You’.
The song is the world’s best-selling holiday track by a female artist – it’s been streamed over one billion times and earned her royalties of more than $60million. Now, 28 years after its initial release, artist Andy Stone has filed a lawsuit on the basis that he released a song with the same title five years ahead of Carey – with a different melody and lyrics. On the basis of seven matching words in the same order, Stone is now suing Carey for $20million.
The evidence brought forward perfectly illustrates the absurdity of modern intellectual property laws. Take for example Public Enemy’s 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. It consists of thousands of small samples from other artists, each sample on its own almost too short to recognise. This album fundamentally shaped music and in particular the early sound of hip hop. If you wonder why nowadays most songs layer the rap over just one primary sample rather than building a sonic wall, the backlash Public Enemy have gotten for this album is the reason. With the current enforcement of IP laws, this album could not be made today. But to make the case against copyright and patents, it is necessary to remind ourselves of the arguments for it.
From an economic perspective, proponents argue that IP laws offer inventors protection for their creative output, therefore incentivising further innovation and ultimately stimulating greater wealth and utility for society.
Ethically, intellectual property laws promise an artist the exclusive right to the product of his or her mind. The idea is simple: one owns one’s own body and labour, and therefore they own the fruits it creates.
However, upon closer examination, neither argument stands up to scrutiny, either in theory or in practice. In reality, IP laws are simply a euphemism for granting monopoly rights to a single person. These monopolies come with all the negative consequences we associate with them: rent seeking, price increases, inefficiency and little to no development.
A famous example is the “sewing machine wars”. In 1846, the US Patent and Trademark Office granted Elias Howe a patent for an improved sewing machine, which was broad enough to cover almost all available sewing machines on the market. Instead of commercialising his invention, Howe used his patent to threaten litigation and began collecting fees of $25 per machine. He received $2 million in total, roughly $38 million in today’s money. Other firms started suing based on their own patents too and production came to a near standstill.
Above all, IP laws completely misunderstand the origin of property rights in the first place. The reason for property rights lies in the fact that we live in a world of scarcity, without which there would be no need to assign a right of ownership over specific resources because in that case there would be no potential conflict over them.
Almost every political theory establishes property rights in some form or another, be it the state who asserts ownership over the means of production, or a contract between two individuals which clarifies a transfer of ownership rights.
Ideas, however, are not scarce. At least not in the same way that tangible property is. Acting on another person’s idea does in no way restrict that person’s ability to make use of the idea too. Abstract ideas exist in the world by the laws of physics, and it is only once we discover (not invent) them, that they become working knowledge.
All that IP laws then do is forbid another person to use their resources as they see fit. For example, by copyrighting a literary work, IP laws restrict you to use your own resources, your pen and your paper, in a particular way. The use of force against a person by threat of potential jail time and fines makes IP laws morally unjustifiable.
Imitation is one of the most basic human mechanisms to learn, develop and improve as a species. We have done so since the dawn of time and if it wasn’t for the millions of pounds IP lawsuits impose on people every year, we would continue to do so.
No one owns the abstract idea of a circle, only once someone homesteads a wheel does he own that physical wheel. How absurd would it then be to sue a cook because his pizza margherita is round? How unwatchable would sports become if a player protected a certain move or technique he invented from being copied (and maybe even perfected) by other players? Or worse: how would we possibly be able to traipse around a mall in December, loaded with Christmas shopping, if we didn’t have Mariah Carey’s voice to lift our spirits?