Last week I had intended to post the first episode of the Ron Paul Channel after I had seen that it was posted to YouTube. This surprised me at first as I knew that Ron Paul Channel was a subscription service, but I figured perhaps they were putting out the first episode, featuring an interview with the great Glenn Greenwald, as a free preview of sorts in order to entice viewers to subscribe. However, upon some further investigation I realized that the YouTube channel that had posted the video was not affiliated with the official Ron Paul Channel. In fact, based on the links seen in the YouTube channel, it appears that it is run by the same people who run RonPaul.com, also not affiliated with Ron Paul and the subject of a controversial dispute over the use of the domain name.
This immediately struck me as a potential problem for the Ron Paul Channel. If people are able to simply post his subscription videos on YouTube the next day, would it not seriously impact the ability of Ron Paul Channel to obtain subscriptions? The more important question is – what should the libertarian view be on this?
This example with the Ron Paul Channel seems like a good case study to reexamine the issue of intellectual property, one that a few months ago became the subject of much heated debate, at least in our niche internet libertarian circles. Should Ron Paul Channel be afforded any sort of legal protection against piracy of their shows, from a libertarian viewpoint? Is there any legitimacy to the idea that a program should be the property of its producers, and that they and only they should be able to decide where, when and how it is viewed?
The issue of IP has been a difficult one for me. On the one hand I am certainly appalled at what we’ve seen from many of the results of State copyright and patent protection. From teenagers going to jail for downloading “Wolverine” to the controversial concept of “gene patenting”, the State has used the idea of intellectual property to trample freedom at every turn.
On the flip side, it is clear that, regardless of whether we have a State monopoly on the legal system or if we lived under a private legal system in my dream world of AnCapistan, there will be people who have disputes over the use of their creative works, be they books, songs or libertarian internet shows.
I find myself left with many questions. How would these disputes be resolved absent the State? What sort of legal mechanisms might spring up in a free market? With the current state of affairs being what they are, how should libertarian legal theory view copyright and patent?
In order to try to sort these issues out, I contacted two voices in the libertarian community who are quite passionate on the subject who share decidedly different views. For the pro-intellectual property viewpoint, I contacted EconomicPolicyJournal.com‘s Robert Wenzel. I asked him how the Ron Paul Channel should come at this from a libertarian perspective, and he responded on his blog.
After discussing Murray Rothbard’s view on IP – namely that he believes copyright could serve a legitimate function on the market as a contract between the producer of a work and with the purchaser of said work – he went on to say:
Thus, unless permission has been specifically granted to post the video on youtube, there is a clear stream of libertarian scholarship holding that the posting is theft.
As for the remedies Ron Paul, or the RPC organization, have, they certainly can pursue the thieves in a court of law. Also as I understand it, if youtube is contacted they may pull a video if they consider it in violation of copyright. It will have to be up to Ron Paul or the RPC organization to determine if it is worth the effort to use either of these remedies.
It is held in parts of the anti-IP community that because it is difficult to enforce intellectual property rights law that IP law should be wiped off the books. This is simply central planning. It should be left to every victim of theft whether or not he wants to pursue damages, not some overseers who want to establish the limits for everyone on the ability to pursue damages. How is that libertarian?
As for the RPC business model, itself, obviously to the degree that daily broadcasts are pirated and published on youtube, RPC will lose revenue. It will have to be up to RP and the RPC organization to determine if it is worthwhile to continue production if revenues are not high enough because of pirating and if it is difficult to protect against piracy. It may be that the revenue loss is not that great and RP decides to continue the channel or RP may decide to change the model to make RPC, say, advertiser supported.
All these are decisions that will have to be made by RP and the RPC organization. That this decision making will have to be made also erases the the idea advanced by anti-IP advocates that there is no harm done by copying material, because the original creator of the material still has his original copy. We can see the weakness in that argument most clearly in this discussion about RPC. Great damage to RPC can be done by reproducing the broadcasts. It can create a great fall off in revenue, possibly to the point where the channel will have to be shutdown.
A key factor to the resolution of this issue is that the decisions of how to protect “intellectual properties” are completely up to the producer of the material in question, and in a stateless society the resources necessary to protect this material would have to come at the expense of the producer. There would be no State to act as the dirty enforcer of any corporations IP claims.
To represent the anti-IP side, I contacted Stephan Kinsella, patent attorney, anti-IP advocate, and author of the book Against Intellectual Property. Kinsella took part in a rowdy debate with Wenzel on this very topic earlier this year. Kinsella has been gracious to offer his time to speak with me on the issue, which I will be doing next week.
If any of our readers have questions for Kinsella on intellectual property, please feel free to send them along to me, and stay tuned for more on this issue.