Review: Boldrin and Levine, “The case against intellectual property”
by Richard Stallman
contains a paper by Boldrin and Levine entitled “The case against
intellectual property”. It argues on economic grounds that authors can
make money by selling their work even in a world where everyone can copy.
You've probably heard the superficial argument that “If the
program is free, you will only sell one copy”. The obvious
response is that today there are companies that sell thousands of
copies a month. But this paper provides another response: it shows
why people who are fully aware of the economic consequences of the
freedom to copy would pay a high price for “the first
term “intellectual property” is biased and spreads
confusion. The bias is easy to see—by calling copyright and
patents and trademarks “property”, it leads people to
think that criticizing them is “opposing property rights”.
The confusion is less evident: by lumping copyright and patents and
trademarks together, it leads people to treat them as one thing, to
ignore their large differences and consider them as a single issue in
terms of their meager similarities.
This usually means ignoring social and ethical aspects of copyrights, and
the different social and ethical aspects of patents, and considering both
copyrights and patents as a single issue in narrow economic terms. The
proponents of harshly restrictive copyrights and patents then present an
economic argument that is so simple that it gives an appearance of being
I normally respond by showing the aspects of the situation that have been
ignored by treating the issue as a purely economic one. Boldrin and
Levine's paper takes on that simple economic argument on its own terms, and
shows the gaps in it, gaps that the apparent simplicity tends to hide.
I believe we should continue to reject the term “intellectual
property”. We need to call attention to the non-economic
aspects of copyrights and the different non-economic aspects of
patents. However, Boldrin and Levine's arguments will be useful for
responding to people who insist on narrowing their values to
The paper is addressed to economists and somewhat mathematical.
Popularization of its ideas would be useful.