Should Intellectual
Property be inheritable? Some defenders of IP, like Jan Lester think
it should. I would disagree. Why should anything be inheritable from
a libertarian point of view? If Libertarianism is all about maximizing interpersonal liberty, should dead people be still
considered a person whose liberty is worth maximizing? I don’t think
it should. Liberty is for the living, not the dead. The concept of
inheritance is basically giving a person property rights beyond his
or her death. Why is that supposed to maximize liberty, unless we
assume that the liberty of dead people still matters?

Having said that, I
am in favour of the inheritability of physical wealth. The reason for
that is that physical things cannot be in the public domain. That is
the reason why property is libertarian in the first place. Allowing
the concept of property on some scarce things is actually liberty
maximising. With the death of a person, his physical wealth does not
go away. If it is true that property in this wealth was maximising
liberty before his death, then it is reasonable to assume finding a
new owner after his death is liberty maximising too.

To put it
differently, physical wealth needs to be inherited to someone.
Putting it in the public domain is not really possible because of its
scarcity. And if the question is just who inherits the wealth, it
seem to make sense to let the previous owner decide who the next
owner should be. If not him, who else should decide it? It also seems
like a good solution, because the previous owner is likely the best
to make an educated decision of who is best suitable to inherit
certain things. This is most likely to keep the wealth in the most
productive hands.

Things look a little
bit differently for IP though. There are certainly many parallels
between the concept of physical and intellectual property. However,
there are also some crucial differences. In particular there are two
differences that make the idea for inheritability of IP look
questionable.

The first one is the
fact that the usability of physical property is always limited to a
few people. For example, if I have a chair, only one person can sit
on it at a time. The same limitation applies to every other physical
property I can think of. That means that for physical things, it is
inevitable to have a rule according to which we can determine, who
can use a desired object for which purpose at a certain time. Most of
the time, the best solution will be to grand people property rights
on these objects. Less often it might be enough to have a simple
possession solution in place.

IP on the other hand
is lacking this characteristic of physical property. In principal,
information can be used by an unlimited number of people
simultaneously. There is no limitation on the information itself. For
example, me reading The Wealth Of Nations does not limited someone
else to read the same book at the same time. This is a big difference
between physical and intellectual property. The only limitation would
be the availability of the physical medium on which the information
are stored. But as I already said, inheritable property rights on the
medium are not a problem to me.

The second
difference is that physical wealth decays. There seems to be no
exception to this, although some things are so robust that for all
practical purposes they can be seen as not decaying. This makes it
necessary to maintain physical things. Maintaining things usually is
a capital intense process. People will less likely engage in this
process if they are not allowed to have some control over the result.

Information on the
other hand do not decay. The pythagorean theorem for example has not
decayed one bit, despite the fact that it is thousands of years old.
One might argue that the physical medium it is stored on needs to be
maintained otherwise the theorem would get lost with the medium. That
is true, but is not much of an argument in the digital internet age.
Desired information will be stored in many different locations at
almost no cost.

These two
differences make the idea of the inheritability of IP questionable.
Other than physical property, IP can actually be in the public
domain. If that is true, than what justifies giving it a new owner,
after the old one has died? This seems to be an unnecessary
imposition on everyone who is not the new owner.