Review: Boldrin and Levine, “The case against intellectual property”

The Case Against Intellectual Property, by Boldrin and Levine, 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 copy.”

The 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 irrefutable.

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 economics.

The paper is addressed to economists and somewhat mathematical. Popularization of its ideas would be useful.