Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Recent Work bannerUC Berkeley

The Justification of Intellectual Property: Contemporary Philosophical Disputes


The issue of whether the state is morally justified in affording content-creators a legal right to exclude others from the content of their creations is a sharply contested issue in information ethics. Once taken for granted as morally legitimate, intellectual property rights have come under fire in the last thirty years as evolving digital information technologies have severed the link between expression of ideas and such traditional material-based media as books and magazines. These advances in digital technology have called attention to unique features of intellectual content that seemingly problematize intellectual property protection; any piece of intellectual content, for example, can be simultaneously appropriated by everyone in the world without thereby diminishing the supply of that content available to others. This essay provides an overview and assessment of the issues, arguments, and counterarguments on intellectual property.

At the outset, it is important to distinguish the general issue of whether intellectual property is justified from the more specific issue of whether a particular body of intellectual property law (e.g., copyright law in the U.S.) is justified. Obviously, a particular body of law protecting intellectual property will not be justified if intellectual property protection is, as a general matter, unjustified, but the converse is not true. One can coherently (and reasonably) believe that content-creators have intellectual property rights that should be protected by law but believe also that many elements of existing copyright and patent law in Western nations are unjustified. The arguments in this essay are concerned primarily with the general issue and not with the more specific issue of whether the law of intellectual property (hereinafter IP) in Western industrialized nations is morally legitimate – though some of the more problematic features of existing law will be discussed briefly at the end of this essay.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View