Joseph Galambos and Intellectual Property

A few years back I read a fascinating book on the history of libertarianism in America called Radicals for Capitalism. Of the many colorful characters in the book, one of my favorites was Joseph Galambos, an astrophysicist-turned-libertarian-guru who took a very stringent view of intellectual property rights. Galambos’ students were forbidden even to mention or paraphrase his ideas with anyone who hadn’t paid for his lecture course (which may help explain why you’ve never heard of him before). One libertarian in the book gives the following humorous account of how a conversation with a Galambosian might go:

“There are five legitimate functions of government,” said the Galambosian.
“No kidding. What are they?”
“I am not at liberty to say. The theory was originated by Andy Galambos and it is his primary property.”
“If the rest of us were free to discuss his ideas,” said the Galambosian, “there is no question in my mind that Galambosianism would spread throughout the whole world like wildfire.”

Wikipedia reports that:

Since his father’s name was Joseph Andrew Galambos, Galambos changed his name from Joseph Andrew Galambos, Jr., to Andrew Joseph Galambos, so that he wouldn’t infringe on his father’s property right in the name Joseph Andrew Galambos.

Galambos also dropped a nickel into a fund box every time he said the word “Liberty,” as a royalty to the descendants of Thomas Paine, who invented the term.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Galambos was kind of nuts. Yet his views are little more than the logical workings out of the idea that intellectual property is a matter of moral right.

After all, if the fact that I have written a song makes it theft for anyone to record a copy of or perform that song without my permission, then it’s hard to see on what basis Galambos’ lectures wouldn’t likewise be his own personal property.

It should be noted that intellectual property traditionally has been based not on moral right but on social utility. The U.S. Constitution, for example, grants Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Unlike real property, ownership of which is perpetual and automatic, intellectual property was explicitly limited by the Founding Fathers both temporarily and as to purpose.

The proper term length for intellectual property has been a matter of much debate. Some economists have even suggested that the proper term may be close to zero. Under the Copyright Act of 1790, the copyright term was 14 years, with the possibility of a 14 year extension (patents were for 20 years). And as my co-blogger Joe has noted, changes in technology have called into question the continuing viability of the copyright system itself.

At the same time, the trend in recent years has been for copyright terms to be extended far beyond what was the case at the time of the Founding. In 1976, for example, copyright terms were extended to the life of the author plus 50 years, and in 1998 terms were retroactively extended to life plus 70 years. And along with this trend, it has become common for people to justify copyright not on the grounds of social expediency but as a matter of moral right. The story of Joseph Galambos thus stands as a timely reminder of the intellectual and moral difficulties with this moral view of intellectual property.

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10 Responses to Joseph Galambos and Intellectual Property

  1. Joe Hargrave says:

    Hey, its always fun when we agree 🙂

  2. RL says:

    I recall you writing about Joseph Andrew Galambos, Sr.’s son before. Quite the nut.

    It really is all about greed. Should someone be able to make a living a living off their work? Of course, and that applies to people who apply their intellectual/artistic talents to making something useful or desired. The problem lies in that if truly successful and profitable people focus on sustaining the cash flow rather than embracing the good that delivered to society.

    I heard that the rights to the Happy Birthday song are still in effect and that any movie or TV show that uses it has to pay a royalty (apparently they’re quite willing to do so because they benefit from the same scheme). It strikes me as a terribly disordered thing.

    Had I written a little tune that nearly every English speaking person in the West knows and sings regularly and that is associated with love and joy, and wrapped in the happy memories of millions, I would be ecstatic and feel some (good)self-pride. I would want the world to continue on with it.

    Yeah, some of the intellectual property rights should be capped with 14-20 years or the death of the person.

  3. LV says:

    While I do agree that the copyright system is badly broken, and that copyrights under the present law are ridiculous, there is something that I think needs to be kept in mind:

    Copyright law is at its heart a very clumsy expression of the most basic of property rights–the right of a landowner to be protected from trespassers. Thus, when the intellectual property owner is granted an exclusive right to his/her work for that limited frame, it does not only include the right to distribute said work; it also includes the right to have said work *not* be distributed, if the owner should so choose–the right, in a sense, to lock the front gate and throw away the key.

    In the absence of a system of patronage, this artificial scarcity is absolutely necessary in order for the owner to have the chance to earn a sufficient compensation for his/her work.

    Thus, there is very much a valid issue of moral rights in the situation.

  4. c matt says:

    Of course, there is the concept of fair use for intellectual property as well – so there are exceptions for simply spreading the idea. Like every other property right, intellectual property rights are not absolute.

  5. John Henry says:

    Had I written a little tune that nearly every English speaking person in the West knows and sings regularly and that is associated with love and joy, and wrapped in the happy memories of millions, I would be ecstatic and feel some (good)self-pride. I would want the world to continue on with it.

    Wouldn’t you also want artists who incorporate your song into their art (like movies) to compensate you in some manner – at least for some period of time? I think the current laws are obviously unnecessarily beneficial to the artists (and the irrationality of the current regime is a prime example of the problem of highly organized corporate interests imposing a cost on the rest of society), but a twenty year licensing or royalty right would probably be reasonable. Artists should be rewarded for their efforts in my view; that doesn’t mean the reward should continue indefinitely. Btw, “Happy Birthday” would long since have passed the twenty year period I suggest above, and may not be legally copyrighted now.

  6. Joe Hargrave says:

    Who decides what “sufficient compensation” is, LV? When you have a price-fixing cartel, you’ve removed economic considerations from the picture. This is why “legitimate” music sales are in the toilet and why the record industry is resorting to extortion and intimidation through the courts. No one’s livelihoods are really at stake in these court cases – it is an industry trying to justify its existence in a world that no longer has a use for it. They’re no different than the workers who used to break machines in 19th century England to stay employed.

    I don’t believe the “song in itself” has exchange value. A performance has exchange value. Providing a venue for advertisers to reach large audiences has exchange value. But compact discs have almost no exchange value, and computer files have none, “in themselves.” That is the problem.

    Artists who wish to profit by their work must “embody” it in a thing that has economic exchange value, something that is scarce and limited – like performances and commercial space. If you transmit your idea, your song, your anything into a medium that is abundant and valueless, you can’t expect rational consumers to pay 10-20 dollars for it.

    I believe art in itself is priceless. It has always been the medium of the art that has been the object of exchange. And I believe that the artistic impulse is in every human soul, and that artists will never want of public and private support. There “is” a system of patronage, in the end: in spite of 95% of music being downloaded illegally, “sales” were still almost 4 billion dollars last year. That’s patronage. No one has to pay for it, and everyone knows it.

    Why can’t we just accept that the era of the “superstar” is over? Artists of the future will be working class schmoes like the rest of us until they impress enough people to part with their own scarce resources to support their efforts. A true artistic meritocracy will replace corporate sponsorship, which has been an absolute disaster for our culture and for the arts.

  7. restrainedradical says:

    If God wanted ideas to be capable of exclusivity like physical property, he wouldn’t have made them so easy to disseminate.

    Intellectual property law may be the area that most clearly frustrates the will of the people. The Supreme Court has left interpretation of the Copyright Clause up to Congress, and by extension, the entertainment industry.

  8. RL says:

    Wouldn’t you also want artists who incorporate your song into their art (like movies) to compensate you in some manner – at least for some period of time?

    Yes, I said so in my comment. Like you, I also suggested that licensing rights should be shortened to a more reasonable time frame.

  9. John Henry says:

    Ha. Are you suggesting I should have read your whole comment (even the last line) before responding? Ridiculous. Glad we agree.

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