Justifications for Intellectual Property Rights

Posted by Catherine Robinson on

3-min read

The subject of why intellectual property rights should be protected has been long debated by legal and political philosophers alike. There are many and varied ramifications for protecting IP rights including, but not limited to, the impact on commerce and the free press.


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Private property rights are often justified on the basis that land is a finite resource and sharing often throws up many practical issues. IP, on the other hand, is not scarce. Anyone and everyone can come up with new ideas and information, and creativity is far from a scarce resource.

There are two main arguments given to justify intellectual property rights:

  • Moral arguments. E.g. the fact that humans ought to own the product of their labour, or the fact that others should not be unjustly enriched off the back of others’ labour.
  • Economic arguments. E.g. the patent system provides an incentive for innovation and investment into research and development of new products.


Further reading:

  1. Moore (ed.), Intellectual Property: Moral, Legal and International Dilemmas (1997);
  2. Gosseries, A Marciano, and A. Strowel (eds), Intellectual Property and Theories of Justice (2008);
  3. Lever (ed.), New Frontiers in the Philosophy of Intellectual Property (2012);
  4. P. Merges, Justifying Intellectual Property (2011).
  5. Drahos, Decentring Communication: The Dark Side of Intellectual Property, in T. Campbell and W. Sidurski (eds), Freedom of Communication (1994);
  6. Waldron, From Authors to Copiers: Individual Rights and Social Values in Intellectual Property (1993) 68 Chi-Kent L Rev 841
  7. Coombe, The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation and the Law (1998);
  8. Plant, The Economics of Copyright (1934) Economica 167;
  9. Breyer, The Uneasy Case for Copyright: A Study of Copyright in Books, Photocopies and Computer Programs' (1970) 84 Harv L Rev 281;
  10. Brown, 'Advertising and the Public Interest: The Legal Protection of Trade Symbols' (1948) 57 Yale
    L) 1165;
  11. Kinsella, 'Against Intellectual Property' (2002) 15 J Liber Sts 1;
  12. Boldrin and M. Levine, Against Intellectual Monopoly (2005). Different theories may work better for different intellectual property rights: L. Paine, Trade Secrets and the Justifications of Intellectual Property: A Comment on Hettinger' (1990) 19 Philos Public Aff 247;
  13. Silbey, The Eureka Myth: Creators, Innovators and Everyday Intellectual Property (2015);
  14. Drahos, Intellectual Property and Human Rights' [1999] IPQ 349;
  15. Breakey, Intellectual Liberty: Natural Rights and Intellectual Liberty (2012);
  16. Hughes, 'The Philosophy of Intellectual Property' (1988) 77 Georgetown L) 287;
  17. Moore, Intellectual Property and Information Control: Philosophical Foundations and Contemporary Issues (2001);
  18. Gordon, 'Property Right in Self Expression' (1993) 102 Yale L] 1533;
  19. Becker, ‘Deserving to Own Intellectual Property' (1993) 68 Chi-Kent L Rev 609;
  20. Hettinger, Justifying Intellectual Property Rights' (1989) 18 Philos Public Af 31;
  21. Machlup and E. Penrose, "The Patent Controversy in the Nineteenth Century' (1950) Ec Hist 1, 10f;
  22. Palmer, 'Are Patents and Copyrights Morally Justified?' (1990) 13 Harv IL & Pub Pol'y 817
  23. Landes and R. Posner, 'An Economic Analysis of Copyright Law (1989) 18 JLS 325;
  24. Elkin-Koren and E. M. Salzberger, The Law and Economics of Intellectual Property in the Digital Age: The Limits of Analysis (2013);
  25. E. Johnson, 'Intellectual Property and the Incentive Fallacy' (2011) 39 FLA St U L Rev 623;
  26. Landes and R. Posner, ‘The Economics of Trademark Law' (1988) 78 TM Rep 267;
  27. Elkin-Koren and E. M.Salzberger, The Law and Economies of Intellectual Property in the Digital Age: The Limits of Analysis (2013), ch. 4;
  28. Landes and R. Posner, The Economic Structure of Intellectual Property (2003);
  29. Kitch, ‘The Nature and Function of the Patent System' (1977) 20 J L & Econ 265;
  30. Gordon, 'Fair Use as Market Failure: A Structural and Economic Analysis of the Betamax Case and is Predecessors’ (1982) 82 Colum L Rev 1600;
  31. Gordon and R. Watt (eds), The Economics of Copyright Developments in Research and Analysis (2003).

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