The Fruit of Your Labor

Is Your Product, Not Its Form.

Defenders of intellectual property often voice the refrain, “People should own the fruits of their labor.” How can any free-market libertarian argue against that?

However, there is something extremely problematic with trying to apply this maxim to technological and artistic forms.

In fact, the phrase isn’t even always true with regard to actual scarce resources. If you sculpt a statue, do you own it? Well that depends on the ownership status of the marble before you worked on it. If it was unowned, then in sculpting it, you have economized it for the first time, and thus homesteaded it: establishing it as your property. In a sense, you could then say you own the fruit of your labor. If you already owned the marble in its raw state, then you continue to own that same marble in its sculpted state. In that case, you do own what happens to be the fruit of your labor, but not because it is the fruit of your labor. You own the marble in its transformed state, simply because you never yielded ownership of the same marble that you owned even in its raw state.

But what if someone else owned the marble in its raw state, and simply hired you to sculpt it. Should you “own the fruit of your labor” then? Nope. So long as your client does not relinquish ownership of the marble, he continues to own it both before you sculpt it and afterward.

What about the shape of the statue? Is that the fruit of your labor? Do you thus somehow “own” it? If someone else were to try to shape his own marble so that it looks like the marble you shaped, would he be “stealing” the “fruit of your labor” from you, and would you be justified in shattering his statue?

No, the very notion of “stealing” a form makes no sense. To understand why, read my essay, “Property vs. Intellectual Monopoly.” Moreover, production is the use of factors of production (labor, tools, etc) to transform other constituent factors of production, which, in their new form constitute the product. And these transformed factors, these products, are the actual “fruits of your labor”. In the example, the product is the single statue, the transformed lump of marble, itself. And it is called a product, precisely because it has been transformed. It would be double-counting to say that both the product, and the new form that it has taken on, are both “fruits”. The form is the defining aspect of the “fruit”; it is not a separate “fruit” in and of itself.

Similarly, if a songwriter or an engineer owns the pencil lead and paper with which they write a new song or draft a new design, then they continue to own those materials after they are transformed into a unique song sheet or blueprint. That is the fruit of his labor, not the pencil-lead-and-paper’s new form itself.

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