Ethics and Information Technology

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 109–121

Are intellectual property rights compatible with Rawlsian principles of justice?

Original Paper


This paper argues that intellectual property rights are incompatible with Rawls’s principles of justice. This conclusion is based upon an analysis of the social stratification that emerges as a result of the patent mechanism which defines a marginalized group and ensure that its members remain alienated from the rights, benefits, and freedoms afforded by the patent product. This stratification is further complicated, so I argue, by the copyright mechanism that restricts and redistributes those rights already distributed by means of the patent mechanism. I argue that the positions of privilege established through both the patent and the copyright mechanisms are positions that do not “allow the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all.” They do not “benefit the least advantaged.” Nor are they “open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.” In making this argument I critically assess the utilitarian defense of intellectual property rights and find it insufficient to respond to the injustices manifest in our current arrangement for the protection of intellectual property rights.


Intellectual property rights Rawls Principles of justice Patent Copyright 


  1. Altschuller, S., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2009). Is music downloading the new prohibition? what students reveal through an ethical dilemma. Ethics in Information Technology, 11, 49–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Benatar, S. (2006). Facing challenges in rolling out antiretroviral treatment in resource-poor countries: Comment on they call it ‘patient selection’ in Khayelitsha. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 15(3), 322–330.Google Scholar
  3. Biron, L. (2010). Two challenges to the idea of intellectual property. The Monist, 93(3), 382–394.Google Scholar
  4. Brennan, R., & Baines, P. (2006). Is there a morally right price for anti-retroviral drugs in the developing world? Business Ethics: A European Review, 15(1), 29–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Britz, J. J., & Ponelis, S. R. (2009). The ethics of piracy in the music industry. Journal of Information Ethics, 18(2), 14–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Easley, R. F. (2005). Ethical issues in the music industry response to innovation and piracy. Journal of Business Ethics, 62, 163–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Hughes, J. (1988). The philosophy of intellectual property. Georgetown Law Journal, 77, 287–366.Google Scholar
  8. Hull, G. (2009). Clearing the rubbish: Locke, the waste proviso, and the moral justification of intellectual property. Public Affairs Quarterly, 23(1), 67–93.MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  9. Introna, L. D. (2007). Singular justice and software piracy. Business Ethics: A European Review, 16(3), 264–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Johansson, K. A., Jerene, D., & Norheim, O. F. (2008). National HIV treatment guidlines in Tanzania and Ethiopia: Are they legitimate rationing tools? Journal of Medical Ethics: The Journal of the Institute of Medical Ethics, 34(6), 478–483.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Kau, A. K., Swinyard, W. R., & Rinne, H. (1990). The morality of software piracy: A cross-cultural analysis. Journal of Business Ethics, 9, 655–664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. McGowan, D. (2004). Copyright Nonconsequentialism. Missouri Law Review, 69, 1–72.Google Scholar
  13. Moore, A. D. (2003). Intellectual property: Theory, privilege, and pragmatism. Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, 16, 191–216.Google Scholar
  14. Nattrass, N. (2003). The moral economy of AIDS in South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Neumann, M. (2009). Degrees of Property. Think 75–91.Google Scholar
  16. Nozick, R. (1999). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.Google Scholar
  17. Peterson, J. (2008). Lockean property and literary works. Legal Theory, 14, 257–280.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Rawls, J. (1999). A theory of justice (Revised ed.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Spinello, R. A. (2003). The future of intellectual property. Ethics and Information Technology, 5, 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Tavani, H. T. (2005). Locke, intellectual property rights, and the information commons. Ethics and Information Technology, 7, 87–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Wilson, J. (2010). Ontology and the regulation of intellectual property. The Monist, 93(3), 450–463.Google Scholar
  22. Wreen, M. (2010). The ontology of intellectual property. The Monist, 93(3), 433–449.Google Scholar
  23. Yung, B. (2009). Reflecting on the common discourse on piracy and intellectual property rights: A divergent perspective. Journal of Business Ethics, 87, 45–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Zwahlen, M., & Egger, E. (2006). Progression and mortality of untreated HIV-positive individuals living in resource-limited settings: Update of literature review and evidence synthesis. In UNAIDS Obligation HQ/05/422204. Accessed 7 July 2011.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.IndependentThoroldCanada

Personalised recommendations