Locke, intellectual property rights, and the information commons

This paper examines the question whether, and to what extent, John Locke’s classic theory of property can be applied to the current debate involving intellectual property rights (IPRs) and the information commons. Organized into four main sections, Section 1 includes a brief exposition of Locke’s arguments for the just appropriation of physical objects and tangible property. In Section 2, I consider some challenges involved in extending Locke’s labor theory of property to the debate about IPRs and digital information. In Section 3, it is argued that even if the labor analogy breaks down, we should not necessarily infer that Locke’s theory has no relevance for the contemporary debate involving IPRs and the information commons. Alternatively, I argue that much of what Locke has to say about the kinds of considerations that ought to be accorded to the physical commons when appropriating objects from it – especially his proviso requiring that “enough and as good” be left for others – can also be applied to appropriations involving the information commons. Based on my reading of Locke’s proviso, I further argue that Locke would presume in favor of the information commons when competing interests (involving the rights of individual appropriators and the preservation of the commons) are at stake. In this sense, I believe that Locke offers us an adjudicative principle for evaluating the claims advanced by rival interests in the contemporary debate about IPRs and the information commons. In Section 4, I apply Locke’s proviso in my analysis of two recent copyright laws: the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). I then argue that both laws violate the spirit of Locke’s proviso because they unfairly restrict the access that ordinary individuals have previously had to resources that comprise the information commons. Noting that Locke would not altogether reject copyright protection for IPRs, I conclude that Locke’s classic property theory provides a useful mechanism for adjudicating between claims about how best to ensure that individuals will be able to continue to access information in digitized form, while at the same time also allowing for that information to enjoy some form of legal protection.
Keywords digital information  information commons  intellectual objects  intellectual property  John Locke  Lockean proviso
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DOI 10.1007/s10676-005-4584-1
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Citations of this work BETA
U. Pagallo (2010). Ethics Among Peers: File Sharing on the Internet Between Openness and Precaution. Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society 8 (2):136-149.
Matthew P. Butcher (2009). At the Foundations of Information Justice. Ethics and Information Technology 11 (1):57-69.
David Faraci (2014). Do Property Rights Presuppose Scarcity? Journal of Business Ethics 125 (3):531-537.

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