Re: Coercion = Intellectual Property Rights?

Hal Finney (
Sat, 19 Dec 1998 10:50:53 -0800

Paul Hughes, <>, writes, about intellectual propety:
> How is this not coercion? This
> type of nonsense happens all the time. What about the guy who
> opened a couple of vegetarian restaurants called McDharma's? This
> wasn't even the same name, but alas he was prohibited from ever
> using it again. How is this not coercion?

"Property" is a social construct. Ultimately the decision about what should and should not be property is decided by the mutual agreement of the people involved. The decision will be based on such issues as practicality, whether the property right can be enforced in practice, and usefulness, whether people do better if they are able to have property rights of a certain type.

Suppose I see a nice vacant plot of land and I decide to build a house on it. Later someone comes along with a policeman (private or public) and a bulldozer and knocks my house down, forcing me to leave. "How is this not coercion?"

It is not coercion if society agrees that there is a property right in land, and I built my house on someone else's land. There have been times and places when unimproved land was not considered property. To homestead some land and turn it into property, you had to fence it in, build a house, start to develop it. This type of property right provides benefits of both practicality (the right is relatively easy to enforce, since if there is an owner working the land, he will notice if someone is infringing), and usefulness (it encourages people to bring more land into productive use).

If you think of property rights in this way, rather than as some Godgiven absolute division of the world into property and not-property, then you can apply the same principles to intellectual property.

Intellectual property can be thought of as "homesteading in thoughtspace". You go out and "fence in" a set of ideas, rather than a piece of land, and it becomes yours. The specific rules for when and how this can be done will be social constructs, as with other forms of property. A smoothly working intellectual property system will satisfy the same requirements of practicality and utility as other types of property rights.

McDonald's has "fenced in" a whole set of names that start with "Mc", at least in the context of the restaurant business. Now, they're a big company with lots of lawyers, and you can argue that they may have fenced in more than they should have: they haven't really "improved" most of the names that they have encircled; much of their "thoughtspace" is lying fallow. Presumably this is so that they can use that space in the future (McPillows to sit on at the restaurants) and to provide a buffer zone to protect their trademark (as with McDharma's). At the edges, it is difficult to defend any particular placement of the fence, in the fuzzy land of thoughtspace. Probably it could be pushed back a little here and there without hurting McDonald's significantly.

But the basic idea of intellectual property, of being able to stake a claim in the world of ideas and defend that, is ultimately to be judged like other such social constructs. Absolute judgements in terms of whether it is coercion won't shed much light on the matter.