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The Strange Romance of IP Expansionism and Aesthetic Relativism

It’s easy to forget that IP is but one of many ways to “promote the progress of the arts and sciences.” Strong social norms may reward creativity or diligence with status. Governments or foundations may give prizes for innovation. Such incentives avoid the usual inefficiencies that arise when a patentee or copyrightholder can exclude all uses it wants to prevent, regardless of their negligible marginal cost.

Some economists have recommended a larger role for prizes in innovation policy. IP expansionists will grudgingly acknowledge such a role for, say, orphan drugs, but tend to draw the line at culture. How is government to know whose most deserving of subsidy? De gustibus non est disputandum!

Well, it seems to me that one can’t dismiss subsidies and cognate cultural policies so easily without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. If quality is really so indefinable, why even have IP in culture at all? Why not simply decide, as a culture, that what we have is enough, and there’s no need to incentivize new stuff? Why not just enjoy what we have?

One needn’t be a cultural pessimist to reach this laissez-faire nihilism. Rather, it’s the natural logic of aesthetic relativism.