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.