Recently, Warner Bros. filed a lawsuit against a small New York bar for playing an 80 year old song without permission. While Warner Bros. claims to have been seriously harmed by the performance, the actual damage is incalculable and the small business now faces up to $60,000 in fines. Of course, it is common sense to give credit where credit is due. Dishonest academic practices, like plagiarism, are usually forbidden on college campuses, and most agree that one should not claim another’s ideas to be his or her own. However, as demonstrated above, legal enforcement of intellectual property (IP)—defined as ownership of one’s own unique and creative ideas—causes more harm than good.
IP law imposes artificial scarcity on naturally abundant and infinitely reproducible ideas. Physical resources are scarce because if I wear a pair of socks, nobody else can wear that exact same pair of socks; however, if I tell someone an idea, we both possess copies of the exact same idea. For this reason, entire genres of music like breakbeat and drum and bass evolved from creative reproduction of a six second drum sample known as the Amen break. Musical artist Amen Andrews uses the Amen break in every song, yet continually produces unique music by slicing, dicing, filtering, and otherwise altering the sample. While the original performers call such use plagiarism because they do not receive royalties, this seems counterintuitive because the sample is often changed to the point of being nearly unrecognizable. Forcing artists to pay to use the sample would severely inhibit the growth of these beautiful and ingenious musical styles. Similarly, patents and copyrights discourage scientists from continuing work in a particular line of study for fear that modifying patented items will result in a lawsuit. IP law, therefore, prevents creative production.