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Copy-Right or Copy-Wrong: Would Locke Support Copyright?

February 28, 2011
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From Communications to Sociology, this year I feel as if copyright is constantly brought up in the core curriculum in the majority of my classes. As I think about copyright and intellectual property, I immediately associate John Locke and his view on property rights. According to Locke, each individual is born with the natural right to protect his or her own life, liberty, and property. Locke also points out that each individual has a right to be compensated for wrongful injury to their own life, liberty, or property which has been caused by other individuals. If this were the case, if Locke were alive today, would he believe in copyright and intellectual property laws?

On one hand, it is important to take into consideration that Locke believes that property is derived from labor. After an artist or writer creates his or her work, they have put a lot of time and effort into their end product. Whether copyright is over a tangible or intangible good, if effort and time is put into its production, it technically is one’s “property” according to Locke. By just taking this into consideration, one would come to believe that Locke would be in favor of copyright. Authors and artists have a right to protect their property and be compensated if others wrongfully “steal” their property.

But I encourage you not to jump to conclusions. After researching a little more about Locke and his hypothetical take on copyright, I found that after the Stationers’ Company monopoly on printing was authorized, Locke was quoted to believe it was “a manifest…invasion of the trade, liberty, and property of the subject.” The legislation of the Stationers’ Company monopoly on printing was the closest thing to copyright Locke and the people of his time came upon—and it is obvious that he disagreed with it. Also, in an argument against Locke accepting copyright, one could argue that Locke is not explicit in his definition of whether his “right to property” meant tangible, or intangible, property; the majority of Locke’s examples on property are tangible. Although Locke highlights property protection on tangible property, do we have the right to infer the same goes for intangible property? Also, besides for property, Locke thought everyone was born with the right to liberty—in this case is one born with the liberty to copy portions of a text or copy work without suffering dire consequences? When should one draw the line?

It is hard to say what stance Locke would take on this complicated issue. Recent technology only makes this decision more difficult. Although we will never truly know the answer, it’s still interesting to speculate Locke’s stance on the issue of copyright.

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4 Comments
  1. Nick Majie permalink
    March 4, 2011 2:17 PM

    I agree that this question is most likely too complex to be explicitly answered due to the fact that Locke strictly limits his perception on the definition of property to tangible property.

    One of the first questions that should be answered: Is information, in regards to copyright, a form of property? If information is a type of property, then we can divide property into two categories that you have already established: tangible property and intangible property (or intellectual property). With these two types of property, Locke’s ideas of property can be applied. Can intangible property, however, even be considered property, and moreover, can information even be considered property at all? Maybe information is not considered a type of property and simply exists in the state of nature.

    First, if information is something that exists in the state of nature, not as a type of property but instead as a type of common good, then under the guidelines of Locke, information would be a common good for all people. In no circumstance would property ever drift into the private realm. As you already stated, Locke believes that everyone was born with the right to liberty, so the right to copy and trade information would be allowed without any consequences. People would be able to use other people’s ideas and expression of ideas as their own. There would be no need of copyright laws in the state of nature.

    On the other hand, information can be considered to be property thus intangible property and intellectual property. According to Locke, in the state of nature, earth is the property of the people either by natural reason or revelation (Locke 293). This infers that all people can share information. As you already mentioned, however, property can become private just as information can become private. Through labor of the body, property can become private thus removed from the state of nature. Likewise, information, through labor of the mind, can become private and removed from the commonplace. In this case, copyright laws could be applied in order to protect the author’s expression of ideas.

    One of Locke’s other arguments about private property is centered around monetary value. “It is labour then which pits the greatest part of the value upon land, without which it would scarcely be worth any thing” (Locke 297). Likewise, when someone analyzes and exerts thought on an idea to create new information, it is now worth something. Locke would argue that this new idea would now have a monetary value and could be sold for money. In this sense, Locke would agree with the idea of copyright because he would agree to the idea of giving the author or founder of the information exclusive rights to expression. The US Copyright Office website states: “Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.” The definition presents copyright as an individual protection for authors; however, copyright only applies to expression and not necessarily ideas. In this case, copyright seems to go beyond the realm of Locke’s argument regarding property.

    Overall, I feel as though this argument is really difficult to formulate; however, using Locke’s beliefs, it seems as though copyright and the laws that accompany it would be impeding on personal liberty. Whether or not information and ideas are considered “property” under the terms of Locke, he would still agree to the idea of people having private rights surrounding the expression of their own, self-created ideas. He would not, however, agree to the strict regulations and rules surrounding copyright today. There is a fine line between what Locke would and would not consider to be just in regards to copyright.

  2. bwand permalink
    March 4, 2011 2:49 PM

    I think Locke would support copyrights in general. He probably opposed the Stationers’ Company because it was a monopoly, which naturally restricts the rights of the people that are trying to buy the products. I think he was more against the company than the idea the company ran itself behind. By having a monopoly over the industry, the company had the ability to manipulate the market and restrict some people from gaining the property. I think your quote about the “invasion of the trade, liberty, and property of the subject” referred to the power the company had within the market instead of the copyright issue. This leads me to agree with your first argument, that Locke would support copyrights in order to protect property, both tangible and intangible.

  3. Katarina Evans permalink
    March 7, 2011 12:42 AM

    When I first read the title of this well-argued post, my bias was that Locke would favor copyright laws, because he had consistently enunciated the importance of personal property, arguing that the government has no right to take a person’s property away. However, you present an interesting counter-argument questioning the limits of this principle and the definition of property. I considered the Stationers’ Company monopoly, which Locke opposed, in a slightly different light. While this case suggests he might also oppose copyright, it seems to me that he was more concerned about preventing restrictions on disseminating the work, rather than on creating the work. He opposed the Stationers’ Monopoly because he objected to their exclusive control of classical works. The Stationers were, in effect, claiming property rights to another person’s work. One could also argue that the he was referring only to tangible, not intangible property but the distinction between the two is fuzzy. I agree with your argument that he would probably extend property rights to both, since both are produced by the author’s thought and hard work. Then there is also another clue. After the Stationer’s monopoly was disbanded, Locke helped write a new law, which never passed, but which would have given proprietary rights to the author. This law was intended to “secure the Author’s property in his copy”. So, while I agree it is impossible to know how Locke would feel about this issue, it seems to me that he might well have been an avid supporter of copyright laws.

    Paul Torremans “Copyright law: a handbook of contemporary research”, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2007 pg 136

  4. Katarina Evans permalink
    March 7, 2011 12:43 AM

    When I first read the title of this well-argued post, my bias was that Locke would favor copyright laws, because he had consistently enunciated the importance of personal property, arguing that the government has no right to take a person’s property away. However, you present an interesting counter-argument questioning the limits of this principle and the definition of property. I considered the Stationers’ Company monopoly, which Locke opposed, in a slightly different light. While this case suggests he might also oppose copyright, it seems to me that he was more concerned about preventing restrictions on disseminating the work, rather than on creating the work. He opposed the Stationers’ Monopoly because he objected to their exclusive control of classical works. The Stationers were, in effect, claiming property rights to another person’s work. One could also argue that the he was referring only to tangible, not intangible property but the distinction between the two is fuzzy. I agree with your argument that he would probably extend property rights to both, since both are produced by the author’s thought and hard work. Then there is also another clue. After the Stationer’s monopoly was disbanded, Locke helped write a new law, which never passed, but which would have given proprietary rights to the author. This law was intended to “secure the Author’s property in his copy”. So, while I agree it is impossible to know how Locke would feel about this issue, it seems to me that he might well have been an avid supporter of copyright laws.

    Paul Torremans “Copyright law: a handbook of contemporary research”, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2007 pg 136

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