Conservatives Split On Copyright, Intellectual Property

Conservatives are split on copyright law. Do current policies protect private property or use big government to stifle innovation?

Phil Kerpen, a former vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity, defended broad copyright protections Friday as a vital incentive to creation, securing the natural rights of individuals to profit from labor.

Derek Khanna, a former staffer for the Republican Study Committee, argued that excessively long copyrights are merely corporate welfare that allows large corporations to stifle competition, and suggested they should be shortened in the interest of maximizing economic benefit. (RELATED: GOP Staffer who Authored Copyright-Reform Paper Loses Job)

Although both men agreed that copyrights are an important protection for intellectual property rights, they differed over the source of those rights.

Kerpen drew on the writings of John Locke to contend that individual ownership of intellectual property is earned through the labor that creates it, saying that, “no property can be more clearly a person’s own than property of the mind.”

Therefore, although copyrights exist to secure the right of individuals to profit from their labor, they are more properly understood as “a restriction on property rights,” since they place limits on intellectual property that do not apply to other types of property. “The concept that protection of ideas comes from the government,” he said, “should be frightening.”

Khanna, conversely, claimed that, “copyrights only exist when granted by the government,” because the Supreme Court has rejected the concept that labor alone confers property rights. “If a right requires you to register with the government,” he said, “then it is not a natural right,” and thus is subject to certain limitations.

The true purpose of copyrights, according to Khanna, is spelled out in the Constitution, which allows for the creation of temporary monopolies through copyrights in order “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.” Even then, though, James Madison warned that they must be “guarded with strictness against abuse.” (RELATED: Conservatives Support Constitutional Copyright)

In Madison’s time, copyrights lasted only 14 years, but today they extend for the life of the author plus 70 years, which Khanna equated to a perpetual monopoly. Anyone who cares about the Constitution, he argued, “can’t easily disregard its language,” and should be able to “identify long copyrights for what they are: crony capitalism.”

Lengthy copyrights, Khanna said, are especially useful for large corporations, which can use them to threaten lawsuits against smaller competitors and prevent the introduction of new products to the market. (RELATED: Should Copyright Laws Exist at All)

Kerpen replied that, “there is a rationale beyond cronyism for long copyrights, and that is fairness for authors,” who should be able to pass property, including intellectual property, to their children and grandchildren. Moreover, he said, “real innovation is about inventing something new, not modifying existing products.”

Kerpen and Khanna spoke at a panel discussion organized by America’s Future Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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