Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Intellectual Property Rights Corner: Has Postrel Gone Nuts?

Virginia Postrel writes a very confusing piece, abetted by of all people an economist using what can be charitably described as fuzzy thinking.

An economist friend writes in response to my post below:
I believe it was Stravinsky who said that "Lesser artists borrow, great ones steal."
As [Joel] Mokyr pointed out in The Lever of Riches, technologically successful economies were happy to borrow the best ideas regardless of their source.

To the extent that the US is the least obsessed with protecting ideas in culture, science, and industry, we will continue to produce the goods with the highest economic returns that are also among the most difficult to copy whether in research, movies, music, or software.

To the extent that we close up or another country succeeds in replicating the US intellectual melting pot, we will decline. Otherwise we will continue to lead.

I agree--plus I'm happy to take any opportunity to plug Joel Mokyr's work. His Gifts of Athena: The Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy is also a great book. (Here's my NYT column on it.)

Okay the logical extension of the idea that knowledge is a capital asset that creates wealth is not that you want to give it away. The logical extension of knowledge being a capital asset is that if you can steal it for free from other sources, then you can reap benefits you did not have to invest resources to produce. The above commentary makes absolutely no sense and therefore I must question Ms. Postrel's sanity.

Yes, the mark of a great society is that it is willing to steal the ideas of other societies. This is an openness to change and innovation and taking "what works" without prejudice as to its source in order to benefit from it. The innovation of jazz from African musical traditions and later Rock&Roll are two cultural examples. However any great society must also protect its assets from being raided by other societies. If India and China feel free to steal our capital assets of knowledge to add to their own R&D then they will progress on the back of our sweat and labor while we struggle to hold our own against them.

If Virginia is advocating a cultural openness to the adoption of new ideas this is good. If Virginia however is advocating ceasing to protect intellectual property rights then she is so ridiculously wrong that it cries for a rebuke from the gods of economics. In either case, this kind of fuzzy thinking is one of the reasons she's not one of my favorite sources. We shouldn't have to guess what her position is, she sould communicate it to us.


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