The Nature of Intellectual Property in the Mid-Twentieth Century

May, 2004

We have become very familiar with the issues and slogans of today’s intellectual property debate in the contexts of globalization, the commercialization of science, the “enclosure” of the intellectual commons, and the seemingly endlesss willingness of our political representatives to extend the length and strengthen the protections for copyright. What I want to do here is to point to some arguments advanced in the mid-twentieth century that, I think, place our current debates in an unfamiliar light. Their authors included some of the period’s most influential economists and scientists, among them being one of the figures most frequently identified as a founder of the modern information age. What we find when we look back at their claims – which framed an emerging policy debate about IP in the scientific and commercial worlds – is that the social and political affiliations we now tend to associate with particular intellectual positions were not always there. Indeed, some of the associations current in the 1930s-60s now look to us very strange indeed. Restoring this history to view may therefore help us to disassociate some positions that have generally come to be regarded as near-inevitable allies, and to associate some positions that we have assumed to be intrinsically inimical to each other. In other words, it helps us remember that positions in this debate are conditioned as much by history as by logic.

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