Apr 022011
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A reader by the name of Shadow-Slider points us to a fascinating report from a 1897 Copyright Commission in Great Britain in which the report points out how content is different than real property because of the difference between scarcity and abundance. It sounds very much like what we discuss here — just well over a century ago.

Some of the witnesses whose evidence has been received by Your Majesty’s Commission have urged the claim of authors to perpetual copyright, on the ground that the right of an author to property in his published works is as complete and extends as far as the right of any person to any property whatever.

If this analogy were admitted, it appears to me that it would be difficult to dispute the claim of an author to perpetual copyright; but I venture to submit that the claim of an author to a right of property in his published works rests upon a radical economic fallacy, viz., a misconception of the nature of the law of value.

The necessity which is recognize in all civilised societies of conferring rights of private or personal property arises from the limited supply of that for which there is an unlimited demand. It is only from a limitation of supply that there can be any value in exchange.

But supply may be limited either by natural or artificial causes.

Wherever supply is limited by natural causes it is necessary in the public interest to limit the demand, by investing the possessor of the subject of it with proprietary rights, for without them the progressive increase of an unlimited demand operation on a limited supply would lead to the dissolution of society. To whatever extent these rights partake, as they often must, of the character of a monopoly, they do so in virtue of attributes derived from the nature of things, which may be regretted, but must be accepted as inevitable, and which the law is therefore compelled to recognise.

There is no such necessity in the case of those objects which are useful or necessary for mankind of which supply is unlimited. In that which is absolutely unlimited, in the air, in sunlight, in the forces of nature, such as heat, electricity, magnetism, &c., there is no natural exchangeable value, and therefore no property; that which, although absolutely unlimited in itself, nevertheless exceeds all probable or possible demands in exchange, there can be little or no value, and little or no property, e.g., in the sea, in the water of large or unfrequented streams, in the game of a wild country, or in the fish of the sea. It is in fact scarcity which creates value, and renders property necessary. Property exists in order to provide against the evils of natural scarcity. A limitation of supply by artificial causes, creates scarcity in order to create property. To limit that which is in its nature unlimited, and thereby to confer an exchangeable value on that which, without such interference, would be the gratuitous possession of mankind, is to create an artificial monopoly which has no warrant in the nature of things, which serves to produce scarcity where there ought to be abundance, and to confine to the few gifts which were intended for all.

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