Patents and Copyrights
Patents and copyrights are the legal implementation of the base of all property rights: a man’s right to the product of his mind.
What the patent and copyright laws acknowledge is the paramount role of mental effort in the production of material values; these laws protect the mind’s contribution in its purest form: the origination of an idea. The subject of patents and copyrights is intellectual property.
An idea as such cannot be protected until it has been given a material form. An invention has to be embodied in a physical model before it can be patented; a story has to be written or printed. But what the patent or copyright protects is not the physical object as such, but the idea which it embodies. By forbidding an unauthorized reproduction of the object, the law declares, in effect, that the physical labor of copying is not the source of the object’s value, that that value is created by the originator of the idea and may not be used without his consent; thus the law establishes the property right of a mind to that which it has brought into existence.
It is important to note, in this connection, that a discovery cannot be patented, only an invention. A scientific or philosophical discovery, which identifies a law of nature, a principle or a fact of reality not previously known, cannot be the exclusive property of the discoverer because: (a) he did not create it, and (b) if he cares to make his discovery public, claiming it to be true, he cannot demand that men continue to pursue or practice falsehoods except by his permission. He can copyright the book in which he presents his discovery and he can demand that his authorship of the discovery be acknowledged, that no other man appropriate or plagiarize the credit for it—but he cannot copyright theoretical knowledge. Patents and copyrights pertain only to the practical application of knowledge, to the creation of a specific object which did not exist in nature—an object which, in the case of patents, may never have existed without its particular originator; and in the case of copyrights, would never have existed.
The government does not “grant” a patent or copyright, in the sense of a gift, privilege, or favor; the government merely secures it—i.e., the government certifies the origination of an idea and protects its owner’s exclusive right of use and disposal.
Since intellectual property rights cannot be exercised in perpetuity, the question of their time limit is an enormously complex issue. . . . In the case of copyrights, the most rational solution is Great Britain’s Copyright Act of 1911, which established the copyright of books, paintings, movies, etc. for the lifetime of the author and fifty years thereafter.
As an objection to the patent laws, some people cite the fact that two inventors may work independently for years on the same invention, but one will beat the other to the patent office by an hour or a day and will acquire an exclusive monopoly, while the loser’s work will then be totally wasted. This type of objection is based on the error of equating the potential with the actual. The fact that a man might have been first, does not alter the fact that he wasn’t. Since the issue is one of commercial rights, the loser in a case of that kind has to accept the fact that in seeking to trade with others he must face the possibility of a competitor winning the race, which is true of all types of competition.