Intellectual Property and Cultural Appropriation

The point of intellectual property is to promote the creation of new content, but IP has become so cumbersome it actually thwarts creativity rather than promote it.  However, restrictions do not just come in the form of laws, but also critiques of what society finds socially acceptable.  Concerns about avant-garde art pushing boundaries would normally be considered the domain of traditional conservatives.  Nonetheless, recent developments have made unlikely critics on the Left, concerned about new art “appropriating” the culture of minorities.


In a previous post, I made a strong argument that copyright has become too restrictive.  Other forms of intellectual property, like patents, aren’t much better. Duke Law Professor James Boyle has written extensively on this issue: What Intellectual Property Should Learn From Software, A Manifesto on WIPO and the Future of Intellectual Property, and a free book, The Public Domain.  Software patents are especially annoying, just ask Richard Stallman.

I had previously stated that IP is interesting because it has a utilitarian basis, not a moral one. Professor Boyle has more degrees than me and says it better:

Yet intellectual property rights are not ends in themselves. Their goal is to give us a decentralized system of innovation in science and culture: no government agency should pick which books are written or have the sole say over which technologies are developed. Instead, the creation of limited legal monopolies called intellectual property rights gives us a way of protecting and rewarding innovators in art and technology, encouraging firms to produce quality products, and allowing consumers to rely on the identity of the products they purchased.

While some academics, technology groups, and libertarian groups (like the Cato Institute) have talked about the problems with IP, mainstream politics has yet to really embrace the discussion, with one exception: the Left is not a fan of pharmaceutical patents.  For example, ThinkProgress lauds the Vatican for speaking out against drug patents, and the Huffington Post bemoans the extension of drug patents in the TPP.  Naturally, these articles do not have a great grasp of markets or how they work to benefit individuals, but they do bring forward some interesting points; ThinkProgress holds drug patent laws as more of a moral issue keeping lifesaving drugs away from the poor, while the Huffington Post piece (written by the founder of the CEPR) supplies alternative, more efficient ways to run the drug patent system. If you want a counterpoint, I’d recommend The Economist’s commentary on this topic.

I think this discussion is excellent, and more Republicans should start talking about the most obvious IP reforms, like reducing the amount of patents issued (especially in software), and making it easier for the FDA to approve more drugs at lower cost to companies. Unfortunately much of the discussion about cultural appropriation is decidedly less excellent. Continue reading Intellectual Property and Cultural Appropriation