Rufus Pollock: Copyright is a Monopoly! (And isn’t like normal property)

The equation of ‘intellectual property’ (IP) such as copyright with (traditional “real”) property is frequently made, especially by those advocating its extension. However, this equation is fundamentally erroneous and results in very serious misapprehension of the nature and effect of IP. In particular, patents and copyright confer monopolies in a way that ownership of real property does not.

How is it different?
‘Real’ property like an apple, a car or an acre of land can only ever be used by one person/entity at one time — in economist’s terminlogy they are ‘rival’ goods. Giving someone exclusive rights over them therefore does no harm — only one person can have it and via trade we can ensure the person who values it most ends up with it 1. Here, creating property rights leads to an efficient outcome (at least in our simple case — in more complex setups we would need to think about complementarities, transaction costs etc).

By contrast, a copyright in, for example, a particular text confers not simply control over this or that particular book containing the text but over every instance of such a book. This is the very essence of a monopoly: being sole supplier of some good!

And it has all of the standard consequences of the monopoly: prices rise relative to what they would have been and access is reduced relative to its efficient level in which the price equals the cost of reproduction (i.e. we have a “deadweight” loss).

Furthermore, this cost of monopoly can be particularly serious when we have extensive “reuse” — i.e. new work builds upon old — as the monopoly inhibits not only access by users but the creation of new creative work.

The difference then between “normal” property and “intellectual property” is the difference between giving someone control of one apple (the apple they bought say) and control of all apples. The latter results in significant harm and inefficiency while the former does not.

Now, of course, the fact copyright is a monopoly does not mean it is per se bad. After all, we are deeply concerned with the incentives to create and the copyright monopoly helps provide such incentives.

We may therefore be willing to tolerate the ex-post costs of a monopoly because of the ex-ante benefits it provides in incentivizing and rewarding the creation of new work. But this is fundamentally a trade-off and one which gets worse as the monopoly is extended — a completely different situation from that with “real” property.

This point is made elegantly by Macaulay (opposing a copyright term extension in the 1840s):

“It is good that authors should be remunerated, and the least exceptionable way of remunerating them is by a monopoly. Yet monopoly is evil. For the sake of the good we must submit to the evil: but the evil ought not to last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good.”

This is not something one would write about normal, ‘real’, property.

  • Rufus Pollock