I was talking recently with an Australian, who expressed outrage that the Australian government allows mining companies to extract valuable resources from state-owned land, almost for free. Now, I have expressed similar sentiments in the past about the comparable US practice. But on reflection, it occurred to me that I couldn’t agree with the claim of another lunch participant that it is a “no-brainer” that the public should be taking a significant portion of the value realised from the resources extracted from public land.
If you think back to the time when US mining laws were first laid out — I think the main US law dates back to 1871 or so — the general view must have been, there are vast territories out there, where valuable minerals are buried, that would be of great use to the general economy, if only we could get them out of the earth. Rather than pay people to go search for them systematically, we offer that anyone who finds some and figures out how to get them to market, can keep the profits from their sale.
Things look different now that the West doesn’t look so big anymore, and globalisation of markets means that resource availability is seen more as a matter of pricing than of existential availability. But once I put it that way, mining rights came to seem pretty similar to another sort of rights that states do tend to grant on the public domain free of charge, and with little controversy, namely intellectual property rights. It seems perfectly natural that those who have sweated to produce a book or an invention should earn the fruits of the invention. The public should perhaps be compensated for the small costs of registering the copyright or patent, and perhaps more generally processing the IP claims, but nothing more. And yet, the public is accepting significant restrictions on rights of free speech, the rights of others to develop their own new ideas, and so on. For example, back in 1990, an eye surgeon was awarded a patent for a modified style of cutting the eye for cataract surgery, that eliminated the need for stitches. Had he succeeded in enforcing the patent, it would have created a situation where a surgeon preparing to slice into a cornea without a license from Dr Pallin would have been forced to intentionally do so in a way that he or she knew would harm the patient. (The patent was later ruled invalid, but only because similar techniques were found in the medical literature preceding the patent.)
On a related note, why is it that copyrights have been consistently extended in recent decades, with no apparent limit, but drug companies have had no success in pressuring governments to extend patents?