Wednesday, November 07, 2007


November 7, 2007*

1. Is identity theft, about which so many people are concerned, some form of mirage or is it a real phenomenon?

2. If it is a real phenomenon and identities are actually being stolen—as many thousands of victims of identity theft are prepared to swear, and as the banks and credit card companies of these victims also swear—then does it not follow that identities are a form of property? For nothing can be stolen that is not first owned by someone.

3. If identities are a form of property, are they not intellectual property, since they consist entirely of words and symbols, not the physical persons of the people to whom the identities refer?

4.If individuals do have a property right in their own identities, do they not also have a property right in the words and symbols that uniquely identify their products and services? And, by extension, do not voluntary associations of individuals, such as business partnerships and private corporations have a property right in the words and symbols that uniquely identify them and their products and services? Thus, for example, does not General Motors have a property right in its name and logo and in the names and logos of its various individual products and services? In other words, are not brand names and trademarks legitimate forms of intellectual property?

5. Are trademarks and brand names not essential for the operation of free competition, in which better producers benefit from their record of past good work and poorer producers suffer from their record of past poor work?.
I believe that the answers to these questions are all clearly “yes.”

I want to say that I recognize that we live in an age of intellectual disintegration, in which philosophers, lawyers, and judges have proved themselves capable of corrupting practically any concept. As a result, it should not be surprising that there are corruptions of the concept of intellectual property and its application. One that comes readily to mind is Ralph Lauren’s ability, according to John Stossel, to appropriate the word “Polo,” to the point that even organizations of actual polo players cannot use the word without being held guilty of violating an alleged intellectual property right of Lauren’s. The truth, of course, if Stossel is right, is that Lauren’s appropriation of the word “Polo” is a violation of their intellectual property rights.

I’ve deliberately avoided any discussion of patents and copyrights here because my purpose has been simply to establish the legitimacy of the concept of intellectual property as such.


*This article was originally a posting to the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s discussion list.

Copyright © 2007, by George Reisman. George Reisman is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics. His web site is