Opposing the Claim that Expensive Research Won’t Occur Without Intellectual Property

One of the issues many branches of libertarianism disagree on is intellectual property. Some branches of libertarianism, such as constitutional libertarianism, believe that intellectual property is just while others branches of libertarianism, such as anarchism, oppose the idea of intellectual property. Even anarcho-capitalists can’t agree entirely on the topic. Murray Rothbard believed certain forms of intellectual property, specifically copyrights, were valid if they took shape in the form of contractual agreements between a producer and a consumer. Objectivism is another school that generally advocates of very strong intellectual property rights.

I belong to the school that oppose intellectual property in all forms. It is my belief that enforcing property rights can only be justified in the case of scarce resources. If a resource is infinitely reproducible one has no justifiable claim to use force to protect it. Ideas by their very nature are infinite resources. Consider the difference between an idea and an apple. An apple is a scarce resource in as much as it can only be enjoyed by a fixed number of people. Once an apple has been consumed it is gone forever. Ideas are not scarce resources as they can be enjoyed by an infinite number of people. If I have an idea and tell you that idea I do not lose that idea, instead we both have that idea.

Many people support intellectual property for, what they believe to be, pragmatic reasons. One of the most common arguments I hear in favor of intellectual property involves the cost of developing new technologies. Advocates of intellectual property will claim that producers won’t risk the large expense involved in developing new technologies if they aren’t guaranteed some kind of exclusive period to recoup their costs. This argument is most often made in regards to intellectual property laws regarding medical technologies. If these advocates are correct pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t invest the resources necessary to develop new drugs without the monopoly guarantees patents offer. This argument is historically unprecedented.

Intellectual property is a fairly modern concept. If advocates of intellectual property were correct, if producers were entirely unwilling to invest resources to develop new technologies without the temporary monopoly granted by intellectual property laws, then the human race would never have developed the wheel. In fact many technologies we take for granted today were developed at a time when intellectual property laws didn’t exist. When I point this out advocates of intellectual property are quick to claim that such an argument is invalid because modern technologies, such as new pharmaceuticals, require many more resources to develop. Such refutations are the result of historical ignorance.

Students of viking history have likely heard of Ulfberht. Ulfberht was the name inscribe on many high quality viking age swords and is believed to be the name of the blacksmith who created them. Today one would believe that producing a sword is a rather simple affair, which is true. Back in the viking age producing a sword was a difficult task that required a great deal of time. There is a good video created by Google engineer Niels Provos that demonstrates how viking swords were created:

The primary difference between Provos’s method and the methods used during the viking age is that the blacksmiths of the viking age didn’t have access to powered tools. Instead of a power hammer blacksmiths of the viking age had to rely on manually operated hammers. What took Provos a few days to complete would have taken a viking age blacksmith far more time, even with several people under his employ. Producing swords was an extremely time and energy consuming affair. But Ulfberht’s swords weren’t merely swords, they were superior swords. Most swords of the era were made from an inferior steel:

Medieval blacksmiths in Europe didn’t make slag-free steel, because their fires weren’t hot enough to fully liquefy the iron. In modern times, metals are melted at temperatures over 3,000 degrees. This separates out the slag and allows more carbon to be mixed in evenly. But in the Viking era, carbon could only be introduced incidentally, mainly through the coal in the fire, and the only way to remove the slag from the metal was to try to hammer out the impurities with each strike.

Of the thousands of European swords from the Middle Ages that have been found, all were thought to have been made from this inferior steel, until Williams analyzed the Ulfberht.

One of the things that set the Ulfberht apart from other swords of the day was the use of superior metal, steel:

Produced only from about 800 to 1,000 A.D., this Viking sword was made from a pure steel, not seen again in Europe for nearly 1,000 years.

This high-tech weapon of its time was inscribed with the mysterious word “Ulfberht.” Carried by only a few elite warriors, the Ulfberht represented the perfect marriage of form and function in the chaos that was a Viking battle.

Medieval Europe did not have the ability to produce steel. The steel used to produce Ulfberht’s swords came from many thousands of miles away:

But the genuine ones were made from ingots of crucible steel, which the Vikings brought back from furnaces thousands of miles away in modern Afghanistan and Iran. The tests at Teddington proved the genuine Ulfberht swords had a phenomenally high carbon content, three times that of the fakes, and half again that of modern carbon steel.

Today it seems inconceivable that creating a sword could compare to creating new pharmaceuticals. With our modern technology creating swords is fairly trivial and the task has been mostly automated. Back in the viking age creating a sword was a difficult task that could only be performed by individuals with a great deal of knowledge and skill. The secret of Ulfberht’s swords lied in the material, which had to be imported from thousands of miles away. That metal, also created in a time when intellectual property laws didn’t exist, would have been expensive and likely difficult to work with. Shaping crucible steel into a sword would have required a great deal of time and specialized knowledge in working with that particular steel. Combining the expense of importing the steel, the time needed to gain the necessary knowledge to work with the steel, and the time and physical labor required to shape the raw steel into a sword lead to a product that only the wealthiest warriors could afford.

Writing off historical technological progresses as easily achieved when compared to modern technological progresses show a lack of historical knowledge. Crafting a better sword required a massive investment, one that was undertaken in spite of intellectual property laws not existing. When an advocate of intellectual property claims that technological advancements wouldn’t occur without intellectual property laws you can kindly inform them of their error by pointing out historical events that contradict their claims. If they claim that those historical events are irrelevant because modern technological advancements require far more resources than historical technological advancements did you can kindly inform them of their error by explaining the processes required to achieve those historical technological advancements.