Slashdot Comment 1999/11/09

00:00 Tue 09 Nov 1999. Updated: 22:09 03 Dec 2006
[, , ]
I wrote this on Slashdot in response to an anonymous post suggesting that Richard Stallman's idea on copyright were 'Communist' in nature and asserting that breaking copyright law is simple, incontrovertible theft indistinguishable from theft of physical objects. The quotation from the original post is italicized.

I’m not going to get into whether or not Stallman’s ideas about the elimination of copyright are ‘Communist’ ideas or not, but some of the other points of this post are worth addressing, especially in light of recent posts about copyright.

I don’t have the prescience to foresee what the world would be like without copyright law. All I know is that there are problems, pretty severe problems, both with the copyright system and with the ‘copyright-less’ system.

Why does copyright exist? To protect the rights of the author (I’m going to use ‘author’ for programmer, singer, creator, etc.). Basically there are two rights, possibly three, that need protecting: economic rights regarding distribution/dissemination of the work, the right to attribution (which is not merely an economic issue), and perhaps the right to privacy (with no copyright, could someone publish your diary without permission if you couldn’t prove that they got it by unfair means?).

However, the need to protect the rights of the author is not absolute. The wider community also has rights, as do the individuals within that community. As Stallman points out, the copyright system attacks your right to aid your neighbours, or to ask them for aid, where aid might involve ‘copyright violations’:

"As a computer user today, you may find yourself using a proprietary (18k characters) program. If your friend asks to make a copy, it would be wrong to refuse. Cooperation is more important than copyright. But underground, closet cooperation does not make for a good society. A person should aspire to live an upright life openly with pride, and this means saying ‘No’ to proprietary software. "
—Stallman, Why Software Should Not Have Owners, http://www.fsf.org/philosophy/why-free.html

Stallman states that cooperation is more important than copyright, though he doesn’t provide a justification for such a statement. However, most people would I think (and hope!) agree that refusing to help out someone else due to copyright issues certainly feels wrong.

At any rate, there is a clear and immediate clash between the right to aid your neighbour/community and the rights of the author. There is also a pretty clear clash between the need of any community to create/foster an open discussion and exchange of ideas. Without such an exchange the community encounters real problems, as any kind of innovation and thought becomes a lot more difficult. These needs are not minor, and cannot be simply dismissed; rather, they are critical to the existence of any society.

There is no right to take the fruits of someone else’s labor. It is beside the point whether those "fruits" really are fruits, or durable goods, or intellectual goods (which are the most durable of all). You have to have the owners’ consent to use his property. If other people don’t need your consent to take the fruits of your labor—then you’re their slave. And the idea of a "right to enslave" makes a mockery of the idea of natural, equal, inalienable rights.

There may be no such right. But there is no individual right to lock up free expression and discussion, either. Furthermore, there is a very real difference between intellectual creations and something like durable goods. If someone carves themselves a dove from a block of wood, certainly you don’t have the right to take that from them. But if someone tells you the idea of a carved dove, do you also have no ‘right’ to that idea? Is it ‘theirs’? If you went away from them and carved a dove, without their consent, would you have ‘stolen’ from them? Hardly. Perhaps if carved doves were in great demand, and you went away to found a huge carved-dove empire while they languished in poverty, there might be an issue… which brings us back to the rights of the author, which were meant to protect the people who have ideas/creations from having their work milked by others without seeing a return. That protection does not entail an equation between actual property and ‘intellectual property’.

As long as we all have to struggle for money to survive, the Free Software model might not be suitable for all areas of copyright. It may be suitable for software, although the digitization of everything means that pretty soon it will be difficult to distinguish ‘software’ from anything else that’s digitally encoded. However, this does not mean that copyright as it now stands is the answer. In the current system I can’t see an absolute answer, but rather a need to balance the rights of the author with the rights/needs of the community.

That is clearly not happening at the moment. The economically-dominant blocs are shaping the definition of copyright, and largely ignoring the needs of the wider community. The desires of the publishing world to abolish the concept of ‘fair use’ are one indication of this. The recent extension of the term of copyright is another—as I recall, this American law extends copyright to 70 years after the death of the author, and 90 years after the death of a ‘corporate’ author… that should make it quite clear whose interests are really being protected. There are many other examples of this lack of balance, discussed at length on Slashdot and elsewhere.

Is there a point to all this? Only that proponents of copyright should remember that copyright is there to ensure that authors get a fair share of the returns from their work—it is not there to protect the interests of companies, and especially not there to adversely affect free speech or the open exchange of ideas. Only that proponents of the ‘information wants to be free’ ideology should remember that in the present system it can be very hard to survive as an author if you cannot guarantee a return from your work. We need a balance; right now it’s tilted rather far in favor of overly-powerful copyright-owning interests.

« (previous)

Leave a Reply