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I have read through several questions here about intellectual property, but so far, I have not been able to pin down an answer for my question. I agree with the objectivist stance that individuals should be able to profit from their ideas. The goal of patent/copyright laws seems to be to prevent theft of an idea, and it must be an invention, not a discovery. According to Ayn Rand, patents protect what may never have existed without its originator, and copyrights protect what would never have existed without its originator. However, for there to be government protection of the intellectual property of a particular individual, all others no longer have the opportunity to come up with the same invention and profit from it by honest means at a later time in a different place. So my question comes in multiple parts:

1) Where is the line drawn between invention and discovery? (I am thinking of things like the wheel)

2) How is it possible to tell what may have or would have never existed without its creator?

3) Why is the first person to come up with an invention favored?

4) Would anti-fraud laws be more effective or not? (and why/why not?)

asked Jan 28 '12 at 14:10

M%20C's gravatar image


1) Where is the line drawn between invention and discovery? The line is difficult to draw, and there will always be close cases that do not fall convincingly on one side or the other. However, the core meanings of the terms are capable of being distinguished (just as it is difficult to determine how many hairs is required before one has a beard but we still can easily distinguish between bearded and beardless men). A scientific discovery is knowledge gained about the identity of an existent and the causal effects associated with it. For example, it is a scientific discover that a changing magnetic field causes electrons to move (i.e., an aspect of the identity of electrons and the causal effects associated with it has been discovered). An invention is the concrete application of scientific knowledge to production, i.e., to the activity of sustaining human life. For example, it is an invention to apply one’s knowledge of electrons in order to create a generator that produces electric current.

2) How is it possible to tell what may have or would have never existed without its creator? When Rand says a work of literature would “never” be created but for its creator, she cannot mean “never” in the mathematical sense of the probability equaling exactly zero. Obviously there is always some miniscule chance that the work would have come to be which cannot be ruled out. But the probability is so mind-bogglingly low that we can say for the sense of the word actually useful to humans such an event will “never” happen. You might have heard the argument that a bunch of monkeys sitting at typewriters could bang out a complete work of literature, simply by pressing random keys (which work of literature the monkeys are to produced varies based on who’s relating the argument, Shakespeare is popular). Technically, one can calculate a non-zero probability for such an event occurring. However, the probability is mind-bogglingly low (4.4 × 10-360,783 for Hamlet—assuming the monkey hit 10 keys per second, one could expect the completed work to be finished in 1.4 X 10360,775 years, which is about 10360,766 times as long as the estimated age of the universe). The point is that a work of art is created by a volitional mind that is completely unique, and the factors that went into the creation will not be duplicated exactly in another human being. The odds of another person coming up with the exact same thing independently are so small they are negligible. Inventions similarly have very small probabilities of being duplicated, but the probability is not as low in their case. This is because inventions are applications of knowledge to solve particular problems of production. Many people share the requisite knowledge and are confronted with similar problems; thus, there are forces that might tend to point multiple people in the same direction in search of a solution, and duplicative invention is possible. However, there are myriad ways to solve the same problem and a limited number of people searching for it, so the odds of two people coming up with the exact same solution are still quite low.

3) Why is the first person to come up with an invention favored? The answer is the same as the answer to the question of why a person should own intellectual property in the first place: they created something of value, and thus they should be able to exploit the value. Before the invention, there was no value. After the invention, an immense amount of value has been brought into existence, part of which stems from the particular physical apparatus the inventor produced that embodies the invention, but a greater part of which stems from the value of the idea itself (i.e., the potential for the creation of future physical embodiments). The second person to come along and “invent” the same thing does not create the same value. The value of the idea of the invention has already been created by the first inventor. The second person does not create the value of the idea, because the first inventor already did. The only value the second person creates is the physical apparatus he produced (the value of which is very small compared to the value of the idea). It is true that his work had the potential to have created the same value had he finished first, but it does not change the fact that he did not actually create the value.

4) Would anti-fraud laws be more effective or not? Anti-fraud laws would not be sufficient alone to protect owners of intellectual property. Fraud is gaining a value from someone through deceiving them. Anti-fraud laws would, for example, prevent you from selling someone else’s book under the false pretense that you wrote it, or marketing someone else’s invention under the false pretense that you are its creator. However, they would not prevent you from selling someone else’s book if you were honest about who the author is, or marketing someone else’s invention if you are honest about who invented it. As long as you do not deceive anyone, fraud will not be an issue. But you are still taking value from its true owner: the money you receive for selling the book/invention could have (and should have) gone to the author/inventor, but you have appropriated to yourself.

UPDATE--In response to the questioners further comments:

I agree that in a society of rational moral persons, people would not deliberately deprive creators of IP of the money they are due. This does not remove the need for the government to protect the IP owners though---rational moral people will not commit murder, but this is not a reason to not have laws against murder.

First, not all people are rational moral persons even in an ideal society, which is precisely why we need a government and laws--there will always be some crooks.

Second, even if we pretend that all people are moral, people can make mistakes and we need the law to objectively settle disputes (even between rational men). To take an IP example, one person can honestly and rationally believe, based on the facts available to him, that a book is in the public domain (i.e., nobody owns it), and thus starts printing it without any license. However, another person (lets say the publisher who bought the work from the author) thinks that he owns the work. Fraud laws will not help here--both persons are honest in their beliefs. Relying on their personal morality will not work here--both persons are trying to be moral. The law needs to step in to resolve this honest disagreement: does anyone own the work? if so who? what are the consequences of this? etc.

In short, IP laws are necessary---definitely in any realistic society, and even still in an ideal society.

answered Jan 29 '12 at 18:30

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Feb 04 '12 at 14:25

Thank you for the answers. For (1-3), I think I have a good handle on them. Excellent responses.

Now, for the last question (which is the main one), here is what I am thinking:

In a rational society of consumers who understand that a person should gain the fruits of his labor, would there really be a problem of people buying, say, books or music from people who have no claim to them? If I enjoy a good book or good music, I want to make sure the author or composer gets my money because I want to invest in that person's ability to produce more of what I enjoy.

(Feb 03 '12 at 17:15) M C M%20C's gravatar image

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Asked: Jan 28 '12 at 14:10

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Last updated: Feb 04 '12 at 14:25