Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Prices as Intellectual Property

The magic of the marketplace that Hayek proposed works because prices covey the information necessary to make efficient decisions. I never believed Hayek, but I never supported intellectual property either. Here we have Harvard's bookstore acting as if its retail prices were intellectual property to prevent students from buying "efficiently."

"The Coop, Harvard's Barnes-and-Noble-run bookstore, has begun to throw out students who "take a lot of notes" about book pricing, stating that their prices are "intellectual property." Apparently, no one with a Harvard Law degree is involved in formulating this notion, as factual matters (such as pricing) are not copyrightable."

"Coop President Jerry P. Murphy '73 said that while there is no Coop policy against individual students copying down book information, "we discourage people who are taking down a lot of notes." The apparent new policy could be a response to efforts by -- an online database that allows students to find the books they need for each course at discounted prices from several online booksellers -- from writing down the ISBN identification numbers for books at the Coop and then using that information for their Web site. Murphy said the Coop considers that information the Coop's intellectual property."


Anonymous said...

i was not very happy with my undergraduate experience. so when a person i knew got a postdoc at harvard i went to visit her.

harvard, i soon realized, was the center of all the evil that had made me unhappy at other schools.

Feeder of Felines said...

Give them intellectual property jerks a finger and they will take the whole arm. Maybe one of those students can find a lawyer willing to try a lawsuit on a contingency basis. (IANAL, so I don't know what legal basis there might be for a lawsuit, but for a business open to the general public to make a false property claim as a basis for excluding potential customers surely is at best of dubious legal propriety.)

Jim Westrich said...

Actually, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Most retailers do not want you to know what their prices are in any convenient way (most consistent and clear pricing is the result of regulation and not the good will of the retailer).

Comparing prices really gets most retailers angry. You can prove it for yourself by taking a clipboard into any large chain store and writing things down. Just see how long you last. Stores that offer "low price" guarantees are usually the one's that are most aggressive about knowing what their prices are.

Best Buy has tossed many people out of their stores for writing prices down (many grocery stores do the same thing such that it is difficult even for IDed reporters to write price comparison articles). My favorite Best Buy trick is that their "online" store available at computers within their stores is actually fake. They have HIGHER prices listed than what Best Buy online actually has. They show a price online and then you go into the store to pick up the item but it shows a higher price. Then you think, I'll just go online and show them the lower price but the in-store "online" has the store's price. They taught their salespeople to say that the price went up. They got busted doing that but I doubt that they changed this practice much (just the explicit coaching of employees to lie).

Feeder of Felines said...

``Most retailers do not want you to know what their prices are in any convenient way (most consistent and clear pricing is the result of regulation and not the good will of the retailer).''

The consumer is sovereign, but not if they can help it. The customer is always wrong. (or something like that)

Laurent GUERBY said...

My favourite Hayek quote:

""" Just to illustrate how great out ignorance of the optimum forms of delimitation of various rights remains - despite our confidence in the indispensability of the general institution of several property - a few remarks about one particuilar form of property may be made. [...]

The difference between these and other kinds of property rights is this: while ownership of material goods guides the user of scarce means to their most important uses, in the case of immaterial goods such as literary productions and technological inventions the ability to produce them is also limited, yet once they have come into existence, they can be indefinitely multiplied and can be made scarce only by law in order to create an inducement to produce such ideas. Yet it is not obvious that such forced scarcity is the most effective way to stimulate the human creative process. I doubt whether there exists a single great work of literature which we would not possess had the author been unable to obtain an exclusive copyright for it; it seems to me that the case for copyright must rest almost entirely on the circumstance that such exceedingly useful works as encyclopaedias, dictionaries, textbooks and other works of reference could not be produced if, once they existed, they could freely be reproduced.

Similarly, recurrent re-examinations of the problem have not demonstrated that the obtainability of patents of invention actually enhances the flow of new technical knowledge rather than leading to wasteful concentration of research on problems whose solution in the near future can be foreseen and where, in consequence of the law, anyone who hits upon a solution a moment before the next gains the right to its exclusive use for a prolonged period."""

The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, 1988 (p. 35) Friedrich von Hayek

(I don't have the book handy, could someone check?)