John Locke and Intellectual Property

What does John Locke have to do with IP?

John Locke came up with a general theory of physical property that stated that people own themselves. It was built upon the foundations of labor-mixing theory, proviso, self-ownership and value-adding theory. The general theory was extended into an Intellectual Property (IP) theory, which implies that the fruits of intellectual labor are owned by the laborer (Morrissey, 2012). This intellectual labor includes thought, engineering and design. The former theory had a notion of physical property acquisition and physical labor that extended into the new theory of intellectual property acquisition and intellectual labor. According to the general theory, a physical property that one does not own is acquired by mixing it with physical labor. Similarly, intellectual property rights are acquired through intellectual labor.

The Lockean theory of intellectual property seeks to set a firmer foundation for defining intellectual property rights. The rule-utilitarian theory is insufficient in generating these rights. Thus, it leaves room for out rightly stating that an individual has a right (Moore, 1997). It According to John Locke, social utility diminished when control is granted to authors and inventors based on the utilitarian theory, making it necessary for society to eliminate the systems of intellectual property under this theory. One major difference between intellectual and physical property is that intellectual property is non-rivalrous, unlike physical property. This means that it can be owned and utilized by many people at once. Physical property, on the other hand, can only be used and owned by one person at a time. Intellectual property that is unowned is also practically nonactual and infinite. One piece of intellectual work can be owned and created by more than two people.

Locke’s labor theory of property faced criticism from Drahos (2016), where he highlighted that labor is not an appropriate mixing metaphor to effectively be used in allocating intellectual property. He stated that labor is too incomplete or too indeterminate in forming a basis for justifying intellectual property. It can only apploy to a few cases, such as growing a plant, but not in cases where varied skills are needed, such as designing a computer program. Locke was described in this book as a misleading labor theorist of property, since his claims on intellectual property rights being mixed with labor conflicted with the claims of earlier theorists such as Grotius and Pufendorf. In contrast to Locke, earlier labor theorists suggested that private property is likely to belong to individuals as a result of metaphysic of community and agreement, rather than as a result of the labor mixed with the property.












Drahos, P. (2016). A philosophy of intellectual property. Routledge.

Moore, A. D. (1997). Toward a Lockean theory of intellectual property. Intellectual property:         Moral, legal, and international dilemmas, 81.

Morrissey, M. (2012). An alternative to intellectual property theories of Locke and utilitarian        economics.

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