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The Biblical Case for Intellectual Property



Although the Bible is rarely used to engage in political theory, it is clear from reading the text that the Torah cared a lot about property rights.


Take Deuteronomy 19:14 “Do not move your neighbor’s boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess” or Exodus 22:1 “Whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.”


Commentaries on the former verse indicate that it was a means of discouraging people from encroaching on one another’s livelihood. [2] This latter verse points to the fact that stealing an ox required greater boldness from the thief and had a greater impact on the economic status of the victim. Consequently, it carried heavier penalties than the theft of other livestock. [1]


In short, both verses recognize two principles that were clearly considered part of Jewish law: 1) that landowners had a protected right to earn a livelihood with their private property, and 2) the amount of effort coupled with the economic impact of a theft increased the penalty associated with the crime.


The reason for this extensive discussion is simple: it establishes that the Torah protects property rights.


Surprisingly, President Joe Biden made an unprecedented move in May to express public support of a waiver of patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines. This announcement comes after nations like India and South Africa pressured the United States to release the biotechnology that made the vaccines possible to the rest of the world. [3]


Before President Biden’s announcement, Albert Bourla, the Chairman and CEO of Pfizer, sent a letter to the United States Trade Representative noting that:


I worry that waiving of patent protection will disincentivize anyone else from taking a big risk…The recent rhetoric will not discourage us from continuing investing in science. But I am not sure if the same is true for the thousands of small biotech innovators that are totally dependent on accessing capital from investors who invest only on the premise that their intellectual property will be protected. [4]


The observations of Mr. Bourla reflect the reasons for which the Torah sensibly punished infringements on property rights. Although the idea of waiving intellectual property rights is ostensibly being peddled on the basis of altruism, it is misguided.


“Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions” is a quotation famously attributed to American-English poet T.S. Eliot. While one might imagine there are good intentions behind the idea of waiving the intellectual property rights assigned to companies like Pfizer, there is a reason the Godly wisdom of the Bible protects rights to property.


If President Biden’s push for the waiver of intellectual property rights succeeds, not only will the companies who developed the vaccines have their livelihoods impacted, the effect will be catastrophic. No other company will be incentivized to take the risk of developing pharmaceuticals if their rights to their ideas will be revoked. This move will surely have a far worse impact on humanity than the minor “harm” caused by the cost of vaccines sold on the free market. As the Torah indicates, private businessmen have the right to protect the source of their livelihood and the enormous economic implications of denying their intellectual property rights makes this protection all the more important.


Foundations of Truth hereby waives all claim of copyright (economic and moral) in this work and immediately places it in the public domain; it may be used, published, edited, and distributed in any manner whatsoever without any attribution or notice to Foundations of Truth.


[1] “Exodus 22:1,” BibleHub.com (n.d.), https://biblehub.com/commentaries/exodus/22-1.htm

[2] “Deuteronomy 19:14 ,” BibleHub.com (n.d.), https://biblehub.com/commentaries/deuteronomy/19-14.htm

[3] “Biden’s Vaccine IP Debacle,” Wall Street Journal (May 6, 2021), https://www.wsj.com/articles/bidens-vaccine-ip-debacle-11620341686

[4] Albert Bourla, “Today I Sent This Letter To Have a Candid Conversation With Our Colleagues About the Drivers of COVID-19 Access and Availability,” LinkedIn (May 7, 2021), https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/today-i-sent-letter-have-candid-conversation-our-drivers-bourla

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