Ideas Can't Be Property. Can Dirt?

So, we’re all in agreement that intellectual property is a bad thing that should not exist. What about plain old property? If no one has a right to monopolize the use of an idea, is there a justification to allow monopolies on the use of a little bit of the planet?

First of all, let’s make a distinction between possessions and property. Nobody is arguing that you don’t get to keep the shirt on your back, or your toothbrush, or your laptop. What I’m concerned with is the exclusive right to land, and to the structures built on that piece of land.

One problem with claiming a monopoly on an idea is almost the opposite problem of claiming a monopoly on land. Ideas are a non-rivalrous good, in that one person’s use of an idea won’t take it away from anyone else (actually, Nina Paley suggests they might be anti-rivalrous). However, ideas can often be attributed to a specific creator. Land, on the other hand, is definitely rivalrous, but nobody created it. It was always there, before any of us were born. So how can anyone justify claiming to “own” any land?

Some philosophies justify land ownership based on who works the land. If you work the soil to make a thriving farm, if you build a house, that labor belongs to you. But here’s where the similarities with intellectual monopolies start to appear. It’s wrong for a publisher to restrict distribution of a book long after they’ve stopped producing and selling it. So if you put in all this work into your land and then abandon it, do you still have the exclusive right to control the land?

This is what the game Monopoly is about. Originally called The Landlord’s Game, it was invented by Georgist game designer Elizabeth Magie as a “practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” The actions of players are meant to represent absentee landlords, who buy up properties not to use for themselves, but to charge other people to use them. The landlords make money by siphoning value off of anyone who needs to make use of the land, even when they’re not present or making use of the land themselves. Then Parker Brothers co-opts the game, slaps a trademark on it, and invents the concept of irony.

We’ve all played Monopoly, right? It’s not fun. It’s not a fun game at all. I have no idea why anyone ever plays it for enjoyment. But that was supposed to be the point: landlordism sucks.

It’s doubly ironic that Parker Brothers picked an even more Georgist name for the game than Magie did. Georgism’s chief position is that society should only charge one tax: a land use tax. Not property tax — use tax. It’s not a tax on owning the land, but on restricting the rest of the community from using it. This clearly frames the situation not as a property right, but as a monopoly right granted as part of a bargain with the public. You’re granted a monopoly in exchange for contributing money to the public. Just like the copyright monopoly is supposed to be: a limited-time monopoly on an idea in exchange for releasing it into the public domain afterward.

How different is it to claim land than to claim a monopoly on an idea? Is it right for one person — who lives in their own house, all by themselves — to extract money from people living in completely separate dwellings? Is it right for one person to claim acres and acres of land as their own just to walk around on, and not allow anyone else to build or develop anything on it?

Well, of course it’s not right to abuse one’s power like that. The real question is whether it’s preventable. Apologists for the copyright monopoly say that it’s a necessary evil to allow ideas to be locked away from the public – but we know how wrong they are. Social mores end up achieving much of what the copyright monopoly is supposed to be good for: discouraging plagiarism, getting (enough) people to compensate the artist, and encouraging new creativity. Are social mores enough to prevent someone from squatting in your house, even in the absence of property law?

So why are these questions even relevant? Why rock the boat on who gets to control land? Two reasons.

First, the present issue of homelessness and inadequate housing. In the United States, there are 24 empty homes for every homeless person as of 2012. These homes are owned by real estate speculators and banks, going unused because the property holder finds it more profitable to lock them up than to let anyone live there. China has its famous ghost cities, built for no reason other than to hit GDP targets. Vast, empty apartment complexes that analysts say would be perfect to house China’s 250 million rural poor, but none of them can afford to move in. Countries all over the world have empty developments, perfectly good homes there for the taking, if only it weren’t illegal to just break and enter. There’s no “lack of demand” keeping these homes empty; more like a lack of supply of money held by the people who need them.

This is another great reason why we argue for a universal basic income, but that brings us to the second reason why land ownership is a pressing question. So the government gives everyone enough money for “a rental one-bedroom apartment in the medium-far suburbs of a relevant city” — who collects that rent? If we still have private landlords, doesn’t that mean the rentier class will unfairly benefit from basic income, and that the government is effectively subsidizing them? But if the government owns all of the apartments, isn’t that a Soviet scenario that’s open to corruption and all of the problems with central planning? There has to be another option besides feudalism or Leninism.

There isn’t an easy way to answer this question, but it may be one of the most important of this century. With densely-populated cities becoming the only viable way of life, it’s going to be harder and harder to find an uncontested place to live, to set up shop, or to assemble. We know that we can trust neither central governments nor corporations and aristocrats to act in the public interest where the Internet and culture are concerned, so how can we trust either one with the power to throw us out of our own homes? But at the same time, don’t we need protection from other people invading our homes and private spaces? Or can we learn to share?


  1. TG

    Landlords are already subsidised by the state, via the police and court systems who repel squatters and chase tenants in arrears at the expense of Joe Taxpayer. So the solution is to let landlords bear the responsibility and costs of upholding their own property claims. You’ll see less appetite to own vast tracts of far-flung land if it has to be paid for.

    Also, abolish planning laws. Land is not serving the needs of the people because the state puts restrictions on its use. We have the ridiculous situation where the state subsidises farmers in loss-making enterprises, while at the same time forbidding those farmers from putting their land to profitable use.

  2. Buglord

    well of course communism would be fantastic, nobody laying around the streets when they’d rather have a roof, massively easier to get a job when you want one, no absolute requirement of needing to have a job when there are no jobs for you to get. communism is one of the ideal situations a society could achieve.

    sadly, however, humanity is a thing, humanity is a terrible thing that is utterly incapable using communism how it is meant to be used. ingrained even in their genetics to be liars and cheaters, using tools and slaves for what they can’t do themselves. corrupting with every drop of power they have and hungering for more. everyone is responsible in a proper communism, everyone has the same power, the same value and the same commitment to not destroy the society by upsetting the balance, in any way, even just breeding too many people for what is sustainable in the area.

    it doesn’t even seem to be possible for humans to be content, from their dawn, drawing on cave walls, hitting things with sticks and stones, they have never been content with what they had. they saw birds, flying in the sky, fish breathing under water, animals of all sorts doing things they couldn’t and it angers them, they want to be the best, at everything, no matter what it is. and even then, they know there is more, more than what they know and more than they can imagine. even today we stare into space, one day hoping to travel there as easily as we once did caves, and now do continents.

    looking up, I write way too long about things.

    1. 4ndy

      >ingrained even in their genetics to be liars and cheaters…
      I don’t know where exactly you got this idea, though I can guess, but it certainly isn’t supported by modern genetics.
      For an overview, you could see the first half hour or so of
      or for more detail, this free Human Behavioral Biology lecture course from Stanford U:

  3. mijj

    .. as a tangent ..

    > “ideas can often be attributed to a specific creator”

    ideas may often be attributed to specific creators, but this is an erroneous idea. Ideas don’t have individual creators.

    Ideas don’t come from nowhere to be spontaneously created by gifted individuals. They emerge from a social context where the idea exists in submerged, diffuse form. What we take to be idea creation is, in fact, an idea becoming coherent – an idea emerging whose time has come. (It also explains why more than one person simultaneously “creates” the same idea.)

    This is true for Newton, Einstein and Jimi Hendrix, and any other figure that our pop-media likes to adulate as creative genius. Their genius is thought exploration and coherence not idea creation.

    What we take to be an idea created is actually an idea made coherent.

    1. gurrfield

      I agree with you. Ideas are often provoked into manifestation. Be it by wise old men and women who tell riddles or by an emerging problem in society. It takes the “gifted” individuals to be able to handle the complex ideas and make something of them.

      However… usually the illusion that an idea is ones own is a damn good motivator to explore the thoughts as you mention. So it can be practically useful to uphold that illusion. Because it makes the talented people work harder… That is maybe the most valuable thing in a society. The motivation and drive to do ones best needs to be nurtured. And for creative people it is usually the thought that “How exciting! I am really on to something special here!”.

  4. frank87

    Don’t be to rigorous, you could yust raise real estate taxes…
    Property comes with responsibilities.

    1. gurrfield

      Exactly. Owning land and buildings is taxed, but copyright is not so one could just raise the taxes if needed for land owning. One could think that fees or taxes could be put on copyrights also. That you have to “buy” copyright of your work that will expire after some time. Maybe that would balance copyright a bit more and make it less of a money making machine.

      That someone can own land is necessary to have housing to live and to do new work (office spaces, factories, farms..). That someone can have copyright is only needed to be able to make money off the old works.

  5. David Collier-Brown

    Failing to use your trademark is already reason to lose it, in the modern age. Historically, a lord who failed to defend and work his land lost it as well.

    1. Anonymous

      Squatters’ rights, commons, and other similar laws provide similar provisions today, but the rights of the general public have been slowly steadily weakened in favour of the landowner over the last few centuries.

  6. Zirgs

    There is a huge difference between “I want to make an open world game where you can steal cars and shoot people” and actual GTA V game that you can install and play.

  7. Olaf

    “So, we’re all in agreement that intellectual property is a bad thing that should not exist.”


    Owning intellectual property was not the problem, it was selling it and expecting to keep the property rights at the same time.

    1. gurrfield

      Copyright is not any kind of “property” at all – it is just a restriction of other peoples freedom to produce copies. The term Intellectual Property is just a mind game. Has nothing to do with property at all – but it has to do with saboutaging peoples freedom to do business.

      I was born and raised believing we in the West had freedom to do business as contrary to the monopolism of the East behind the Iron Curtain. Turns out we are almost as bad on monopolism over here, but the monopolies are privately owned instead of state run – and the excuse to keep them is “but mah ‘legal rights’ !”. Well the state / govt had some “legal rights” in Soviet too. Nothing short of oppression.

  8. Jonah

    The difference is to copy a the orgin still exists, but to take property, land I’m talking about and develop it from someone means that there is a physical loss to someone. That doesn’t justify the countless empty houses that could be used but big corporations hoard, we just don’t want to go too far – too extreme to the “left”, we all know what happens then.

  9. […] Ideas Can’t Be Property. Can Dirt? est à la fois une question et un rappel historique sur la question de la propriété foncière, signé par Zacquary Adam Green sur […]

  10. Justin Keith

    I am a geoist for this very reason. Economics was corrupted when economic land and economic capital were lumped together. This leads to endless fighting between capitalists and socialists who both rightly have a leg to stand on, but there is actually no conflict if the term is properly broken apart and people stuck with the three classical factors of production: land, labor, and capital.

    The tragedy of the commons is a real phenomenon and people need to be able to have exclusive access to land (land includes minerals, fishing quotas, the EM spectrum, acquifers – any free, non-produced “gift of nature”). People need to be able to exclude others from more than their fair share otherwise the economy will be horribly inefficient. However, rent arises only when The Lockean Proviso is violated. After all, if as much and as good was available for use, then why would you need to pay a landlord?

    Thus the rent is the measure of the violation of The Lockean Proviso, and can justifiably determine the amount of a compensatory tax, so long as the excluded individuals either get the money as a basic income or get to determine where it goes (public services) or both. In this way, the people excluded are compensated not in kind, which is impractical, but in currency.

    This solves just about all of the social problems in one fell swoop leaving currency meddling and I.P. as the two largest remaining “root social causes” of poverty and human-caused misery.

    Want to allow smoking in bars? Now you can and no one can complain! No more “but the people need jobs” argument. Having an other-provided job doesn’t have to be a right if you can either go off and farm or use your basic income to live or supplement your living.

    Want to earn tons of money without using banking, land, or I.P. privileges, or otherwise stealing or comitting fraud? Go for it. Keep 100% of it. No sales taxes, no income taxes, no VAT. No KYC/AML, no keeping track of your deductions, no deductions at all. No being a spy against yourself or your neighbor.

  11. […] with the Libertarian Party definition of “economic freedom,” which is the freedom to own property and be an asshole about it. Alas, the chart’s accompanying “world’s smallest political quiz” takes the […]

  12. Mats Lindqvist

    This question of land ownership is indeed an interesting one. At some point, someone planted four poles in the ground and said “this is now mine”. From that point on, properties have been bought, sold, claimed, fought over, inherited etc. Now all land, except possibly Antarctica, is owned. Someone said that capitalism, to 99% of the population, is like playing monopoly, but joining the game in mid session, when all the property is already owned by someone else. I think it was Mark Twain who said “buy land young man, they don’t make it anymore”…

  13. SpaceOctopus

    I totally adore you. You like cats & are an open-source game developer AND you get “it”.

    I’ve been saying for a while & thinking for a while about this very thing, I am not sure though that anyone should be able to own a piece of land, because it’s not as if they created it or anything, literally all that happened was a very very long time ago someone found it & just said “this is mine” basically & it was likely sold over and over again throughout time, but what gives them the right in the beginning to own a piece of the planet? I am a hardcore atheist, but for lack of a better explanation for what I mean is that if god created the planet & allowed us to live on it, he didn’t give them that right or tell them they could own the land (especially since he doesn’t exist & never did), how they could possibly get to do that? It’s caused this problem we’re seeing now.

    I can very much see how this is like our current copyright bullshit that’s going on (i won’t call it the law, because I’m pretty sure copyright laws were only created to prevent plagiarism & that’s obviously not why huge companies are seeking to hurt the little people because they think they’re somehow losing money when they are too stupid to realize they would 99% unlikely get any of said money if pirating didn’t exist at all. Sharing is meant to help people who can’t afford it, and most people, when they can afford it & like something, they will support the creators. The rest of us shouldn’t have to suffer & be without things like music, software, movies, tv shows because we’re poor, that’s bullshit! Plus it allows a lot of us to try something and decide if we even want or like it anyways…) and I really hope there’s a goddamn solution in my lifetime, before it’s too late.

    Population control is also very necessary, and it could easily be controlled by offering huge tax breaks to people for getting vasectomies or having their tubes tied etc, for instance. That’s just one idea, but if we keep letting things continue the way they are, the planet will be hundreds of times more crowded than now, most of whom will be homeless in no time, the planet will be dying, we’ll have no way off of it and even if we did, there would be too many of us & who’s to say that we’ll even have a destination to go to? There’s no reason there should be so many homeless people when there are ghost cities & tons of places for them to live, just as there is no god damn reason people who are sick in our world, anywhere, should have to suffer or die from easily curable or maintainable ailments or illnesses due to lack of funds. It’s ridiculous & wrong & only because of greed & bullshit.

    What I don’t get is why most people are apathetic about it, I mean how does almost nobody seem to at least have a selfish bit of sympathy/empathy out of knowing they’d be miserable in that situation or would really need help too? I can never think of others suffering (unless they’re fucking evil, powerhungry judgmental douchebags who treat others like shit & prevent others from living their lives a certain way or being themselves just because they simply disapprove or it grosses them out, but it never affects them, they’re just assholes) and not feel horrible & like I wish I could do something & I try whenever I can to help people when they’re down or in a shitty situation. Even if they wont rent out the houses or whatever, they should be forced to. There should be a way to make it so that you can’t just squat on properties/buildings because you want to make a shitload of money, in this world, we just can’t afford to do that when there are so many homeless. Not to mention it’s just fucked up.
    Then again, I believe we should change everything to suit the people of the country instead of the corporations & the rich, to protect us from THEM & not the other way around, where they get tons of fucking loopholes & are able to screw all of us over without any repercussion….. they should make it almost impossible for them to influence the government in any form as well… that might also help us with our current anti-piracy bullshit problem. They’ve made sharing, fucking SHARING a punishable offense with a huge punishment that way outweighs any amount of “problems” caused by it. Just thinking about that for one second makes me insane with rage over the stupidity.

  14. D.S. Gruntled

    In the United States, no one owns land but the Federal and State government. The General Property Tax Act of 1893 was the final nail in the coffin of the American Revolution whereby the Ancien Régime (feudal elite) re-enslaved the American people. When the government can take your home and quarter acre suburban lot for failure to deliver the prescribed yearly tribute, you don’t own anything, you are a serf, a slave. A landlord’s tenants pay his taxes, so a prudent landlord is never in danger of losing anything.

  15. […] an unconditional basic income, which will always be a half-finished proposal until we figure out what to do with the landlords.  The funny thing is that intellectual monopolies — our core issue — are a pretty good […]

Comments are closed.