Search This Blog

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

& Intellectual Property

I just finished writing a mammoth post in the discussion of this Ars Technica article about copyright and history. This more or less serves as my thesis on copyright, intellectual property, and file sharing in general:

After reading Alfonse's posts, I thought I should provide an alternate perspective/rebuttal from an intellectual property creator. I produce works of fiction, I produce works of information (the majority of my blog, for instance, dealing with topics related to programming, linguistics, and philosophy), and I produce works of computer programming (though this list is not all-inclusive). I spend just about all of my time creating in some way, even if what I create doesn't leave my head. Given that, most of my work is done primarily for two different reasons, which apply in varying degrees to different works:
1. Because I love what I create, and I enjoy creating it. So much so, in fact, that I do it even when I never expect to profit from it. If I didn't love and enjoy it, I wouldn't spend the considerable effort to create it.
2. Because what I create has value to others - it's useful in some way to people other than myself. Now, I'm still selfish in my own way - if I'm going to create something that I don't enjoy creating, even if it benefits others, I better be getting some other kind of incentive, such as money. But most of the stuff I create for the benefit of others is also enjoyable for me.

Conspicuously absent from that list is to make money. To me, getting paid for creating something is the icing on the cake - the cake itself is the content I produce. I think that, as much as is possible (hold that thought), that's the ideal of creation - not professions and commercialization.I believe that work created for its own merit is superior to work created solely for the purpose of obtaining your next paycheck; so yes, I think a world of amateurs would be great.

Of course, it's entirely possible that my beliefs are influenced by my own conditions - I have many skills, some of which can be used commercially, others not; so many, in fact, that I don't have time in my life to explore all of them (interestingly, writing is one of the less intellectual of my skills). If this is not the case for you, Alfonse, then that could certainly contribute to our difference of opinions.

Alternately (or perhaps additionally), perhaps our difference of perspective is due to different origins. When I read your posts, I can't get the image of a five year old throwing a temper tantrum when they can't get every single thing they want out of my head. I, on the other hand, have spent more than the last decade in an internet community based on free distribution of content. Content produced by others is freely used as the basis of derivation over thousands of hours of labor, and both derivative content and original content are given away without any expectation of (or request for) payment (some, such as myself, have even refused attempts by fans to pay for content that was intended to be free). In fact, I'm both a creator of derivative works and of original works.

On the other hand, creation of some things can be prohibitively expensive. You are absolutely correct in that big-budget movies (which I would love to see some of my stories made into, by the way), large computer programs, etc., would not be created unless the creators expected significant returns, because without those returns they would be impossible to produce. As well, some industries, such as the movie industry, cannot provide their work as a service, as you also pointed out.

Consequently, I'm (almost but not quite paradoxically) also a proponent of copyright (as well as patents, although that's an entirely different topic). Of course the copyright I'm a proponent of bears little resemblance to the copyright of today. I advocate copyright of 10-20 years, maybe 30 at most. Furthermore, there are going to have to be some changes in the nature of copyright, not just the duration, as well. This statement requires some explanation.

The world has changed. This is no longer the same world as when copyright law was established; it's not even the same world as twenty years ago. Personal computers and the internet have fundamentally changed the nature of information. I found Mark Twain's arguments in favor of copyright - specifically, that it's unfair for publishers to continue to make money off of his works when the copyright has expired and he no longer able to make money off of them - to be convincing... for the world at that time.

At the time, there was only one reasonable way to make a book: massive and expensive printing presses. As such things were well outside the reach of the common person, this gave publishers non-exclusive production rights even without enforcement of copyright. As they controlled the production, they also could set the prices people must pay for them. Furthermore, the books produced had an inherent value by nature of the cost of producing them. This was true even as recently as twenty years ago; recordable cassette tapes existed, but were inferior to the originals, and CDs could not yet be burned on a personal computer.

This is no longer the case. Personal computers and the internet have made it possible for a work to be duplicated an infinite number of times with absolutely 0 production costs (note that I'm referring to producing the copies themselves, not the content). Copies no longer have an inherent value, nor is there any limitation on who may produce these copies. Most computers now have CD and DVD burners, and information my be transferred over the internet without any special kind of hardware.

Twenty years ago, "theft" (I'm not even going to get into the debate of definition) of intellectual property was limited to those with large budgets - large-scale counterfeiter out for nothing more than profit - who could be reasonably attacked legally. Today, however, there are tens of millions (probably hundreds of millions if you count people outside the US) of IP "thieves", each wanting nothing more than to access the content themselves, with no exchange of money. Besides the fact that the fundamental nature of infringement has changed, it's quite literally impossible to target more than a small fraction of them with legal action, assuming they're even in a country you are on good terms with.

Under such conditions, copyright law enforcement will be, at best, sporadic, and at worst entirely unjust, as companies and governments are required to drastically lower accuracy of prosecution to be able to afford it at all (this is what the RIAA faces now, and it'll only get worse if personal infringement becomes criminal). Technological countermeasures (note that technology and computers are probably my #1 skill, and my current profession, so I hope you'll consider my words to carry some weight) are also doomed to failure without catastrophic side effects of the type that damage culture and invention more than piracy and counterfeiting ever could; though to be fair, such results would also occur if copyright continues to be strengthened as it has been over the last couple hundred years.

We are at the point where the morality of piracy is becoming irrelevant. Regardless of whether it's right or wrong, it's simply not possible to stop it, so you're going to have to get used to it. Even better, you could follow the lead of me and my community and thrive on it, both commercially and non-commercially. I have a job; how about you?

No comments: