Can Patents be a True Property Right When They Expire?
Opponents of patents often like to refer to them as a monopoly, which is a thoroughly discredited idea (see here, here, here, here, and here). Another argument they often raise is that “real” property rights do not expire, they go on in perpetuity. Since patents and trademarks expire after a certain period of time, they cannot be true property rights.
To answer this question, it is necessary that examine the nature of property rights more carefully. You obtain property rights in something because you made it productive or created it. Of course you can also trade your rights in something you created for currency and then contract to buy something else, thus obtaining property rights in the item. Your rights in say land are limited by the activity you undertook to obtain those rights. For instance, if you farmed the land and say put a house on it, then you have a right to continue those activities and ones reasonably related to them. However, this does not mean that your property rights extend to the center of the earth or up infinitely into space. It also does not mean you can put a huge pigsty on the edge your land next to your neighbor’s house. Note this was/is true under common law, no need for regulatory law or home owners’ associations.
Property rights are part of the system of natural rights, which are based on the foundation of self-ownership or self-sovereignty.
Is man a sovereign individual who owns his person, his mind, his life and its products – or is he the property of the tribe …
Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, What is Capitalism, p 10.
Locke also based natural rights on self-ownership or self-sovereignty. These ideas are not axioms but derived from observation and logic. You obtain property rights in something because you created it or made it productive. Since you own yourself, you own those things you create, however the limits of your property rights are determined by what you created (made productive) and some practical legal implications.
When it comes to land, most people obtain property rights in the land because they farmed it or made it useful for habitation or both. These property rights do not go on forever as commonly conceived. Dead people cannot own something, only living people can have property rights. When a person dies their property rights expire including their property rights in land. The heirs do not acquire the property rights in the land (assuming they were not an active part of making the land productive), they just receive the first right to acquire the property rights in the land, by making it productive. If they are unable to make the land productive or they are otherwise not a productive people they will quickly have to sell the land to someone who can make it productive.
You might argue that the law does not precisely follow the philosophical basis of the law and that would be correct. However, the law has to consider factors that the pure philosopher does not, for instance, efficiency, evidentiary issues, and certainty of title. If the ownership of land and other property were not passed to the heirs in the form of first right to acquire, then every time someone died there would be a free for all to acquire the land, etc. This would lead to fights, both legal and physical. This would defeat the legal goals of efficiency, evidentiary clarity, and title clarity. However that is not to suggest that the system we have “inherited” for the disposition of estates is perfect or the best.
In the case of patents/copyrights the most philosophically correct position for the length of a patent/copyright (from this point forward I will just discuss patents) would be the inventor’s life. However, this would cause all sorts of practical patents. The patent for a first inventor could issue and one day later the inventor could die, while another inventor could live for another seventy years. This would be unjust. More importantly it would make it very difficult to verify if a patent was still active. Last it would make it very risky to invest in company built around an invention that was patented. Imagine that you are asked to invest in company whose main asset is an invention that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, however if the inventor dies tomorrow the company would lose its most important asset. These practical realities of the law mean that patents should have a certain set period of time. The patent cannot go on in perpetuity because the inventor’s heirs cannot make the asset productive as in the case of land, so they cannot reacquire the patent rights. The US has tried out a number of different term lengths for patents. Presently, it is 20 years from the date of filing and that makes it essentially uniform with the rest of the world. My suggestion would be to make the term of a patent closer to half a person’s life, since most people do not invent things as a child and there is absolutely no macroeconomic evidence that stronger patents have ever inhibited the economy.
 Rand in other places states that Rights are based on the right to life. She necessarily had to mean the right your own life, to be consistent with inalienable rights. It is clear that she was not opposed to the idea of self-ownership and did not see this inconsistent with the idea of natural rights. It is also easier to understand natural rights from a self-ownership point of view than a right to (your own) life.
 It is beyond the scope of this paper to explain the derivation of natural rights by Locke and Rand.
3 Comments »
- Business Models
- Featured Videos
- Intellectual Capitalism
- Legal Philosophy
- Press Release
- Regulatory bill of Rights
- sarbanes oxley
- Sarbanes Oxley