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Why Patents and Copyrights Matter: A Conversation with Adam Mossoff

Would you walk into a store, grab a bottle of wine, and walk out without paying for it? No, that would be stealing. It’s morally wrong, and few would even consider doing it. But many people routinely download or stream pirated content — movies, TV shows — without giving it a second thought. They do not think of these two cases, stealing a bottle of wine and violating a movie copyright, as equivalent morally.

This attitude is compounded by a growing hostility to copyrights and patents. For years some intellectuals and politicians have been calling for drastically scaling back the protections for these forms of intellectual property. And they’ve made inroads. The U.S. patent system once led “the world in securing stable and effective property rights in cutting-edge innovation,” innovation that has supercharged our standard of living in myriad ways. That system was widely seen as the “gold standard.” But no longer.

Why do patents and copyrights matter? What do they protect? What to make of the objections against them? For instance: that no one is really hurt by violations of copyrights or patents; or that these rights are obstacles to progress and innovation; or that they’re an unfair, government-granted privilege or favor?

To explore these issues, I talked to Professor Adam Mossoff, who teaches law at George Mason University. Mossoff is an expert on intellectual property law and policy, who has published extensively in academic journals and popular outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Politico, among many others. He has testified several times before the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Mossoff is also a contributor to two recent books of essays on Ayn Rand’s philosophy: A Companion to Ayn Rand and Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy. Rand was a principled advocate for individual rights, emphatically including rights to intellectual property, and one thread of my conversation with Mossoff relates to his interest in Rand’s ideas and their impact on his thinking.

Two points resonated strongly with me after the interview. First, I was alarmed to learn that protections for patents in the U.S. have diminished so much that some companies, particularly in biotech, have opted to shut down operations: why spend years and invest billions of dollars in R&D if a breakthrough innovation cannot be secured under patents? Second, it was refreshing to hear a justification for intellectual property rights grounded not on economic arguments, but on a moral case about an individual’s right to the product of his mind.

Watch the interview:

 

Photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash

The Campaign to “Abolish Billionaires”

Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are jockeying to spearhead a new crusade. Its premise is that the sheer existence of billionaires is a moral outrage.

“I don’t think that billionaires should exist,” Sanders explained. The crusade’s rallying cry: “Abolish billionaires.” To that end, Warren and Sanders have each proposed special taxes on the ultra-rich.

Central to this crusade is a claim many find plausible. In a New York Times column that went viral, Farhad Manjoo called for “kneecapping the wealthiest among us” because a billion dollars is “far more than anyone might reasonably claim to deserve, however much he believes he has contributed to society.” A burgeoning chorus keeps telling us: “No one deserves a billion dollars” (Tom Scocca); “No one earns a billion dollars” (Jacobin magazine). The implication: everyone who accumulates — not earns, mind you, but accumulates — so vast a fortune must have done so by shady means.

What’s truly corrupt, however, is the campaign to “abolish billionaires.” It’s founded on a smear. It’s not ignorance that leads billionaire-haters to deny the sheer possibility that a billion can be earned. It’s a willful disregard of the facts.

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The War on Vaccines

Nearly twenty years ago, measles in the United States was declared “eliminated” — thanks to widespread vaccination. But measles has made a dangerous comeback. In the last year, several outbreaks occurred in Washington State and parts of New York, particularly in communities with low rates of vaccination. Such outbreaks reflect the influence of the anti-vaccine movement.

What animates this movement? What to make of its assertions about the dangers of vaccines? And what is the state of scientific knowledge about the efficacy and safety of vaccines? To explore these issues, I interviewed Dr. Amesh Adalja, a physician and expert on infectious diseases. Adalja is co-editor of the new book Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, and he has published in scientific journals as well as popular outlets such as The Atlantic, Forbes, and USA Today.

Two major takeaways from the conversation: First, the war on vaccines does not stem from a dispute over facts; rather, it reflects a wider cultural disdain for facts, truth, and reason. Second, the anti-vaccine movement is itself a significant danger. The more it succeeds, the more we can expect an increase in preventable infections and deaths.

Watch or listen to the interview:


Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

The Berlin Wall and the Evil of Socialism

Some came with sledgehammers, some just with their bare hands. On the night of Nov. 9, 1989, jubilant crowds began tearing down the Berlin Wall, an infamous barrier dividing families, a city, a nation. Even as we celebrate that iconic moment, the moral meaning of the Berlin Wall is little understood. 

The Berlin Wall was built and murderously enforced in the name of a profoundly destructive political idea, which, alarmingly, many today are embracing. . .

Continue reading at The Hill

Jacob Mchangama on Free Speech in Europe

In 2005, editors at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were concerned about a seeming climate of self-censorship on the subject of Islam. To assess the extent of that climate, they commissioned and published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. The ensuing political crisis and violent protests around the world — the so-called cartoons crisis — underscored that the principle of freedom of speech is little understood or valued. That fact was on stark display, again, in the aftermath of the 2015 jihadist massacre at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

These crises were part of a pattern dating back to the 1989 Iranian death decree against the British novelist Salman Rushdie. The dominant response of Western intellectuals and political leaders has been to betray the principle of freedom of speech at every turn. We at ARI have been fighting against this global trend by championing intellectual freedom and the freedom of speech.

Where do things stand in Europe today? That’s the question at the center of my recent conversation with Jacob Mchangama, a lawyer and writer based in Denmark. He’s a vocal advocate for freedom of speech, and I’ve found his support for that principle articulate. His work has been featured in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and several scholarly journals. During our conversation, we talked about:

  • the facts surrounding the cartoons crisis, and the intellectual climate today
  • the repeal of Denmark’s blasphemy law, and how, while in effect, it had enabled oppressive regimes to justify their own blasphemy laws
  • a recent notorious case at the European Court of Human Rights concerning an Austrian woman’s disparaging comments about Mohammad

From the interview I came away with a renewed appreciation for the First Amendment’s protection for intellectual freedom — but also with a heightened concern that free speech in America is, at best, taken for granted, and at worse, devalued.

Presidential Candidates — Including Trump — Are Wrong On Iraq

On the 2020 campaign trail, opposition toward the Iraq war has become a litmus test of moral stature. Witness Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (who “never believed what Dick Cheney and George W. Bush said about Iraq”) signaling her virtue and shaming former Vice President Joe Biden (and President Trump), who supported it. And Trump denies he was ever for it.

The common, underlying assumption is that not only the rise of ISIS, but so much of the Mideast’s chaos is ultimately rooted in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Iraq war was a debacle that sacrificed thousands of American lives and sowed chaos, but is it fundamental to understanding and responding to threats emanating from the Middle East?

Read on.

The Timeless Power of We the Living, Ayn Rand’s First, But Least Known, Novel

“Petrograd smelt of carbolic acid.”

The reek of that powerful disinfectant — used to abate the spread of lice-borne diseases — hints at the squalor that defines Petrograd. The city, in the years after the Communist revolution, is a study in filth, poverty, quiet despair. Returning to Petrograd by train is a young woman, whose posture and mien single her out. “She had a calm mouth and slightly widened eyes with the defiant, enraptured, solemnly and fearfully expectant look of a warrior who is entering a strange city and is not quite sure whether he is entering as a conqueror or a captive.”

Meet Kira Argounova, the heroine of We the Living, Ayn Rand’s first — but least known — novel.

Read on.

A Blind Spot Obscuring the Islamist Menace

Well before the Islamic State declared itself a “caliphate,” its leaders announced their aim plainly. But few took them seriously.

“Our objective,” stated one of its spokesmen, “is the formation of an Islamic state on the prophetic model that acknowledges no boundaries, distinguishes not between Arab and non-Arab, easterner and westerner, but on the basis of piety. Its loyalty is exclusively to God: it relies on only Him and fears Him alone.”

Having promised to establish such a caliphate — a society on “the prophetic model,” ruled by sharia (or religious law), a society indifferent to ethnicity and nationality, united only by faith — the Islamic State did exactly that on conquered territory, with its capital in the city of Raqqa (previously in Syria).

Having promised to “acknowledge no boundaries,” ISIS worked globally to spread its vision of a political-social order defined by sharia, leveraging social media and disseminating highly produced propaganda articles, magazines, videos.

Having promised loyalty “exclusively to God,” the group took the fight to the enemy: unbelievers. It inspired, fomented, and directed deadly attacks on infidels in London, in Manchester, in Brussels, in Ankara, in San Bernardino, California, in Orlando, Florida. Hit especially hard was Paris. In January 2015, jihadists massacred journalists at Charlie Hebdo and carried out a deadly siege at a kosher supermarket. Then in November, a squad of jihadists shot up sidewalk cafes and set off suicide bombs outside a soccer stadium and at a music venue, killing 130.

But the reaction of many intellectuals and politicians was denial. A common mantra held that the Islamic State has “nothing to do with Islam” — an echo of the Bush administration’s assurance that the 9/11 attackers had hijacked a noble religion. The repetition of this phrase seemed to imply that wishing will make it so.

Read on.

Does Success in Life Require Compromise?

The issue of compromise comes up all the time, everywhere. To have healthy, meaningful relationships, we’re advised to seek out a middle ground. In the workplace, we hear, it’s vital that we compromise.

Even as some people insist that compromise is a guiding principle of social life, it’s clear that not every compromise leads to desirable outcomes.

Sometimes, it can be toxic to a relationship. Or, it can sink your business. Sometimes you need to say no. But when should you compromise — and when should stand your ground? How can you tell?

Ayn Rand’s philosophic analysis of compromise is enormously clarifying. It equips us to know when a compromise can enable win-win outcomes — and when, instead, we should refuse to give ground. In a recent webinar, part of our series Philosophy for Living on Earth, I discussed aspects of Rand’s view of compromise, drawing on her essay “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?”

I emphasized Rand’s observation that one should compromise only on the details or particulars within a mutually agreed principle, but never on a principle. When you buy a car, for example, you and the seller negotiate — come to a compromise — on the final sale price — within the mutually accepted principle of trade. But a “compromise” on a basic principle, on what you know to be true and right, is destructive: it means violating your convictions and selling out.

I strongly encourage you to read Rand’s essay “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?” which is laden with insights that can help you navigate your personal relationships, your work, and your life. For more on Rand’s view of compromise, and the crucial role of principles in life, take a look at “The Anatomy of Compromise” (reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal).

Here is the webinar with Q&A: