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Intellectual Property Labor Desert Theory Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 5100 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The term intellectual property refers to a loose cluster of legal doctrines that regulate the uses of different sorts of ideas and insignia. The law of copyright protects various “original forms of expression,” including novels, movies, musical compositions, and computer software programs. Some commentators have defended copyrights as natural rights under Locke’s labor-desert theory of property. That facially plausible extension of Locke’s theory does not, however, withstand close scrutiny. His labor-desert justification of property gives an author clear title only to the particular tangible copy in which she fixes her expression–not to some intangible plat in the noumenal realm of ideas. The first justification for IP is John Lockes’ labor desert theory. In short it is: People own themselves, and derived from this they also own the fruits of their labor, as otherwise they would still be slaves. Now creating or inventing things can be considered labor. And therefore works of the intellect are property, just like the goods manufactured by a workman. This justification is what philosophers would call a deontological justification, in the sense that it is a rights-based approach, and that it does not take the consequences of the exercise of these rights into account. The labor theory of property does not work if one subscribes to a pure “eureka” theory of ideas. Therefore, the initial question might be framed in two different ways. First, one would want to determine if society believes that the production of ideas requires labor. Second, one might want to know whether or not, regardless of society’s beliefs, the production of ideas does require labor. The aim of my study is to find out if labor is the only criteria for copyright.

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In many quarters, property is viewed as an inherently conservative concept, it is a social device for maintaining the status quo. Much intellectual property is produced only after considerable financial investment, whether it be in the research laboratory or in the graduate education of the scientist using the facility. A universal definition of intellectual property is by identifying it as nonphysical property, whose value is based upon some idea or ideas. Furthermore, there must be some additional element of novelty. The element of novelty is not necessary to be absolute. The important thing is while at the time of propertization the idea is thought to be generally unknown. The law of copyright protects various “original forms of expression,” including novels, movies, musical compositions, and computer software programs. In the final analysis, intellectual property shares much of the origins and orientation of all forms of property. At the same time, intellectual property is however, more neutral institution than all the other forms of property: The main objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts. To this end, copyright guarantees authors the right to their original expression, but at the same time encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by their work. This result is neither unjust nor unlucky. It is by this means copyright advances the progress of science and art. – Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority, in the case of Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., (1991).

Locke’s Interpretations :

Locke’s theory of property is itself subject to slightly different interpretations. One interpretation is that society rewards labor with property purely on the instrumental grounds that we must provide rewards to get labor. In contrast, a normative interpretation of this labor theory says that labor should be rewarded. [1] 


The second of the four approaches that currently dominate the theoretical literature springs from the propositions that a person who labors upon resources that are either unowned or “held in common” has a natural property right to the fruits of his or her efforts – and that the state has a duty to respect and enforce that natural right. These ideas, originating in the writings of John Locke, are widely thought to be especially applicable to the field of intellectual property, where the pertinent raw materials (facts and concepts) do seem in some sense to be “held in common” and where labor seems to contribute so importantly to the value of finished products. [2] 

A good example of this perspective is Robert Nozick’s brief but influential discussion of patent law in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. [3] After associating himself with Locke’s argument, Nozick turns his attention to Locke’s famously ambiguous proviso — the proposition that a person may legitimately acquire property rights by mixing his labor with resources held in common only if, after the acquisition, there is enough and as good left in common for others. [4] Nozick contends that the correct interpretation of this limitation (correct in the senses (a) that it probably corresponds to Locke’s original intent and (b) that, in any event, it is entailed by an adequate theory of justice) is that the acquisition of property through labor is acceptable if and only, others do not suffer any net harm. Net harm for these purposes includes such injuries as being left poorer than they would have been under a regime that did not permit the acquisition of property through labor or a constriction of the set of resources available for their use — but does not include a diminution in their opportunities to acquire property rights in unowned resources by being the first to labor upon them. Construed in this fashion, the Lockean proviso is not violated, Nozick argues, by the assignment of a patent right to an inventor because, although other persons’ access to the invention is undoubtedly limited by the issuance of the patent, the invention would not have been into existence at all without the efforts of the inventor. In other words the consumers are helped by the grant of the patent. Nozick contends, however, that fidelity to Locke’s theory would mandate two limitations on the inventor’s entitlements. First, person who has invented the same device independently must be permitted to make and sell it. Otherwise the assignment of the patent to the first inventor would leave him unhappy. Second, for the same reason, patents should not last longer than, on average, it would have taken someone else to invent the same device had knowledge of the invention not disabled them from inventing it independently. Although Nozick may not have been aware of it, application of the first of these limitations would require a substantial reform of current patent law, which, unlike the copyright law, does not contain a safe shelter for persons who dream up the same idea on their own.

The premise of the third approach derived from the writings of Kant and Hegel, is that private property rights are very important to attain the satisfaction of some fundamental human needs; the makers of the policy should thus endeavor to create and allocate entitlements to resources in the fashion that best enables people to fulfill those needs. From this standpoint, intellectual property rights may be justified either on the ground that they shield from appropriation or modification artifacts through which authors and artists have expressed their wills (an activity thought central to “personhood”) or on the ground that they create social and economic conditions conducive to creative intellectual activity, which in turn is important to human flourishing. [5] 

In perhaps the most fully developed argument of this sort, Justin Hughes derives from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right the following guidelines concerning the proper shape of an intellectual-property system. (a) We should be more willing to acquire legal protection to the fruits of highly expressive intellectual activities, such as the writing of novels, than to the fruits of less expressive activities, such as genetic research. (b) Because a person’s persona — his public image, including his physical features, mannerisms, and history — is an important receptacle for personality, it deserves generous legal protection, despite the fact that ordinarily it does not result from labor. (c) Authors and inventors should be permitted to earn respect, honor, admiration, and money from the public by selling or giving away copies of their works, but should not be permitted to surrender their right to prevent others from mutilating or misattributing their works. [6] 

The labor desert justification is mostly held in Europe and is included in the Berne Convention. In France it is specifically encoded in the so called ‘droits moraux’, or moral rights, that French authors have in addition to economic rights. The moral rights involve things such as the right to decide whether something is to be published, the right to withdraw it from the market, and the right of attribution. They cannot be sold by the author, and are perpetual. The interests that the labor desert justification centers on mostly are those of authors and publishers. [7] 


To get a protection under the copyright Act the writing should be original. [8] Berne Convention, in context of collection of works, identifies the selection and arrangement as elements of “intellectual creations”, which in turn, more broadly characterizes ‘literary work and artistic works’ protected under that multinational organization. The agreement on TRIPs provides that the copyright protection shall extend to expressions and not to the ideas, procedures and methods of operations. [9] The Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property’ annexed to the World Trade Organization treaty and the 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright. Treaty also adopts the “intellectual creation” standard in connection with the compilation. [10] 

Thus originality is the basic requirement for the copyright, even in case of compilation also. In order to have originality, there should be “modicum of creativity”. [11] 

In general rule where the compilations of facts are copyrightable, but the facts are not. In due course of time, a doctrine of “Sweat of The Brow” was developed. This doctrine discouraged the requirement of the creativity, in works. It only protected the sweat and labor of the compiler, without the usage of creativity in it. Anything which is mechanical and automatic task without having any amount of creativity in it, is also copyrightable under this doctrine.

For example, a person collected various articles of a famous author, whose articles were already in public domain. He published a book of these articles just by the method of compilation. He neither used his judgment nor creativity for the compilation of the book. In this case he cannot claim copyright for his book. If the person would have added his own views and comments in the book, regarding the articles mentioned in it then copyright could have been given to him.

But if we apply the doctrine of “sweat of the brow” in the abovementioned example, the case would have been different. The work would have been subject to protection of copyright. The labor spent in compilation of the articles in the book, without any creativity, has been enough to get the protection of copyright, under the “sweat of the brow” doctrine.


This doctrine was in application for a long time and it accompanied various factual compilations, totally ignoring the essence of creativity in copyright law, and just awarding the labor done to compile a work. In 1991, the U.S. Court gave a amazing judgment of Feist Publication v. Rural Publication, [12] which clearly rejected the sweat of the brow doctrine and held that merely use of effort does not amount to protection. The Supreme Court promoted creative originality theory and tried to abolish this doctrine of sweat of the brow. “Sweat of the brow” is a doctrine which protects factual compilations. According to this doctrine, labor done in compilation overcomes the requirement of creativity in a work, to make it copyrightable. To determine the place and time of this doctrine is not viable, but this can be said that it has originated while interpretation of earlier statutes, and thus to prohibit second-comers from free riding on the labor of others. [13] 

Federal copyright in U.S. emphasizes the work to be creative in order to attain copyrightable standard. It allows for the protection of compilations, provided there is a creative or original act involved in such a compilation, such as in the selection (deciding which things to include or exclude), and arrangement (how they are shown and in what order). The previous statutes of the U.S. also encouraged the sweat of the brow doctrine. The law stressed on protecting the stress work than the work of fancy. [14] At that time, the belief was that the access of facts is in the betterment of public interest and thus will promote the progress. Since its inception, United States copyright law has protected factual compilations. [15] “maps, charts and books” were protected under U.S. Copyright act 1790. [16] This showed the intent to protect utilitarian collections of information like directories and other informational works. [17] 

In the case of Key Publications, Inc. v. Chinatown Today Publishing Enterprises, Inc. [18] Key Publication published an Annual Classified Business Directory for New York City’s Chinese- American community. In 1990, Galore Publication published the Galore Directory, a classified directory for the New York Chinese American community. Key brought a suit against Galore Directory charging that Galore Directory infringed Key’s copyright in the 1999-90 Key Directory. The United States Court of Appeal held that individual components of compilation are generally within the public domain and thus available for public.

Directory is subject to copyright protection, but that the Galore Directory does not infringe Key’s copyright. The court concluded that this arrangement was not mechanical. Instead, it showed creativity and was thus copyrightable. It was not typical, garden variety, routine, or obvious. There are three requirements for a compilation to qualify for copyright protection:

(1) the collection and assembly of pre-existing data;

(2) selection, coordination or arrangement of the data; and

(3) the resulting work that comes into being is original, by virtue of the selection, coordination or arrangement of the data contained in the work.

The “sweat of the Brow doctrine”, rewarded compilers for their efforts in collecting facts with a de facto copyright to those facts and this doctrine would prevent, preclude the author absolutely from saving time and effort by referring to and relying upon prior published material. For originality, the work is not required to contain novelty. It extended copyright protection in compilation beyond selection and arrangement – the compiler’s original contribution – to the facts themselves drawn on sweat of the brow is a copyright protection to the facts discovered by the compiler. The court discarded sweat of the brow notion of copyright law.

In BellSouth Advertising &Publishing Co. v. Donnelley Information Publishing, [19] it was held that Compilation is work formed by collecting and assembling pre existing materials or data, so selected, coordinated, or arranged that the resulting work as whole constitutes original work of authorship. Thus, in action in which publisher alleged that competitor had infringed its copyright on phone directory, trial court properly entered summary judgment for publisher where directory was afforded copyright protection as compilation and competitor had violated copyright; directory was compilation due to fact that publisher had performed several acts of selection, had coordinated all current informational components of particular business into one complete business listing, and had arranged coordinated listings according to various categories. The court first held that the company’s acts of selection in deciding what to include, such as determining the directory’s geographic scope, setting the closing date after which changes could not be made, and its marketing techniques to generate the data, did not meet the required level of originality. These were techniques for the discovery of facts, not acts of authorship. The court held that the directory of Bellsouth, as a whole, may be copyrightable, but the act of the defendant will not amount to infringement of the Bellsouth’s copyright.

Section 13 of Indian Copyright Act, 1957 provides, inter alia, that copyright shall subsist in every original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. Thus originality is the cardinal requirement for getting protection of copyright. But the term “original” is nowhere defined in the Act; hence it is uncertain what amounts to originality.

According to section 14 of the Act, only author of the work, subject to sec.17 of the Act is entitled to have copyright protection and can enjoy the exclusive rights therein. So the person who devotes his labor, skill and judgment can have a monopoly right over the work.

In respect of compilations, the Copyright Act, 1957 does not limit protection only to compilations which “by reason of the selection or arrangement of their contents constitute intellectual creations”. Nor does it mandate supplementary criteria to selection and arrangement expressly. India is a common law country and therefore it follows the “sweat of the brow” doctrine. [20] 

It was held that a compilation of addresses developed by any one by devoting time, money, labor and skill though the source may be commonly situated amounts to a ‘literary work’ wherein the author has a copyright. [21] 

In the case of Indian Express Newspaper (Bombay) Pvt Ltd. v. Jagmohan, [22] the Bombay High Court has emphatically stated that there is no copyright for happenings and events which could be news stories, and a reporter cannot claim any copyright over such events because he/she reported it first. The Court said that the ideas, information, natural phenomena, and events on which an author expends his/her skill, labor, capital, judgment and literary talents are common property and are not the subject of copyright. Hence, there is no copyright in news or information per se. However, copyright may be obtained for the form in which these are expressed because of the skill and labor that goes into the writing of stories or features and in the selection and arrangement of the material.


Firstly there has been a hard-wearing and widespread popular commitment in the United States to a labor-desert theory of property. The belief that a person deserves to own something that he or she has created through productive labor has long had considerable currency in America. [23] This was even more appropriate in the era of nineteenth century, but social psychologists tell us that, even now, most of the Americans sign oneself to the closely related equity theory of distributive justice — the notion that each person who contributes to a collective enterprise deserves a reward in proportion with the extent of his or her contribution to the enterprise. [24] 

Since the late eighteenth century, the attitude of first to establish and then to expand intellectual property rights are contributed to the willingness of legislators and judges. Thus, for example, the committee that caused to believe the Continental Congress to recommend to the states that they adopt copyright laws justified the offer partly on the ground that nothing is more properly a man’s own than the fruit of his study. [25] Analogous statements may be found throughout American history by other lawmakers. For example, in 1837 Henry Clay argued that it is incontestable that authors and inventors have, according to the practice among civilized nations, a property in their respective productions . . . ; and that this property should be protected as effectually as any other property is, by law, follows as a legitimate consequence. [26] More recently, Justice O’Connor justified her narrow reading of the fair use doctrine on similar type of grounds: The rights conferred by copyright are designed to assure contributors to the store of knowledge a fair return for their labors. [27] 

Secondly, relation with the system of ideas and ideals has been the widespread popular suspicion in the United States of governmental participation in the process of recognizing and appreciating good works of art and socially precious inventions. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans were accepting to the notion that governments could advance the interest of the public by recognizing and supporting all sorts of socially valuable ventures. This general disposition had many events in early American legal and economic history — including, for instance: selective grants of corporate charters to enterprises that, in the legislators’ view, promised to redound to the public welfare; Mill Acts, which empowered landowners who wished to install mills on streams running through their property to build dams that flooded their neighbor’s property (provided they paid compensation); and generous delegations by state legislatures of the power of eminent domain to private railroads. [28] 


Copyright law is about expression, not about ideas. So the main objective of copyright should not only be to reward the labor of authors but to protect expression while encouraging others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed in the expression. The amount of creativity needed to meet the originality requirement should not be remarkable, but creativity should be visible. According to Fiest, nothing substitutes for creativity. The author cannot win protection by showing that he invested considerable resources. But even after coming of Feist, the degree of originality is not fixed and still the “Doctrine of the Sweat of the Brow” is prevailing either directly or under the guise of other term.

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However, there are cases demonstrating the protection bestowed upon the labor of the compiler who took pain in doing collection. The intent of legislature in U.S. is clear on the fact of compilation definition, Feist can be easily applied in the cases arising there. But in other countries Like Canada, and India, the notion of Sweat of the Brow is still a matter of debate. In India, the legislature does not outline the boundary of the originality. The status quo on the requirement of amount of creativity is still ambiguous even though the need of creativity is recognized. Many of the cases have affirmed the doctrine of the sweat of the brow, paying no regard to the importance of creativity. Although the court in some of the cases have rejected the sweat of brow doctrine, lack of certainty with regard to the degree of originality required – the ambiguous nature of the terms “flavour” and “substantive variation” seem to leave the Courts with an exit option in terms of allowing interpretation which could tend towards either of the doctrines of originality. This justification depicts more element of sense than the three main alternative “Lockean” theories of Intellectual property . Productive labor theory justifies the lay intuition that Lockean labor theory does provide a justification for the control rights protected in patent and copyright law. Yet its not critical enough about the conditions that must be satisfied before an intellectual work deserves to be protected by the control rights characteristic of patent and copyright. Specifically, lay Lockeanism threatens significant labor interests of non-authors and non-inventors by arguing for infinite patent or copyright terms.

This should be made clear in mind that purpose of copyright is protection of the creative work and not to entertain the person who just compile the already known fact. Initiative on part of The legislature of the country must be instituted to sketch the boundary by defining the term compilation, so that it can be useful for the court to determine what amount of originality is required in a work, to make it copyrightable.


Online resources:

Research papers/articles

William Fisher, Theories Of Intellectual Property


William W. Fisher , The Growth of Intellectual Property: A History of the Ownership of Ideas in the United States.


Locke on Copyright


Labour Desert


Justin Hughes, The Philosophy of Intellectual Property

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Stephen R. Munzer, A Theory of Property, Vol. 100, No. 2 (Apr., 1991), pp. 300-302


David B. Annis & Cecil E. Bohanon (1992), Desert and Property Rights, Journal of Value Inquiry 26 (4). Property Rights in Social and Political Philosophy


• Hugh Laddie, Peter Prescott & Mary Vitoria, ‘The Modern Law of Copyrights and

Designs’ (London: Buttersworth Publications, 1995).

• N.S. Gopalkrishnan & T.G. Agstha, ‘Principles of Intellectual Property’ (Lucknow: Eastern

Book Company, 2009).

• R. Anita Rao & V. Bhanji Rao, ‘Intellectual Property Rights- A Primer’ (Lucknow: Eastern

Book Company, 2010).

• Rajshree Chandra, ‘Knowledge as Property: Issues in the Moral Grounding of IPRs’ (New

Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010).

• Paul Torremans, ‘Holyoak and Truemans Intellectual Property Law’ (New York:

Cambridge University Press, 2008).

• T. Ramappa, ‘Intellectual Property Law in India’ (Hyderabad: Asia Law House, 2010).

• Copinger and Skone James on Copyrights, vol. 1 (London: Thompson Sweet and

Maxwell, 2008).


The Copyright Act, 1957.

TRIPS Act, 1994


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