Moving to Freedom, .Org(on)

Slashdot Copyright Discussion (re: Gowers Report and Dead Artist Petition)

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Slashdot has a story picked up from Lawrence Lessig about the Gowers report and resulting petition signed in part by dead artists. There is this comment by “Toby the Economist”:

If I’m a painter, and I create a great work of art, does it pass into the public domain after n years?

If I’m a programmer, and I create a wonderful piece of software, does it pass into the public domain after n years?

If I’m a singer, and I create a great song, does it pass into the public domain after n years?

Oh. It does. Erm, why?

It’s basically judicial theft.

The ethical rule is this; if you make something, it belongs to you, and you can do what you want with it - and that includes handing it down to your kids to help them in their lives.

Toby the Economist, slashdot comment

I can’t tell from that and the resulting discussion if he is sincere or a troll. If a troll, it’s not especially subtle and is kind of tedious. If sincere, it’s disturbing how deeply rooted this idea is that intellectual work and ideas should be the subject of property rights.

The followups to this are interesting to read—even if predictable—because I’m so keenly interested in the outcome of this debate. When it comes under discussion in places like slashdot, I’m an avid reader. I hope people will take the time to make the obvious (and correct!) arguments, that they’ll go for blood on the easy points, respond with eloquence on more difficult ones, and that they won’t go down wrong alleyways.

This discussion had a little bit of all that, with missed opportunities and wrong turns, but many good comments. I wasn’t especially impressed with Toby’s tactics. He ignored most of the good points that were made. He conflated intellectual “property” with physical property in ways that made little sense.

Still, I was finally moved to respond to one tidbit, even though the discussion had probably long since cooled. At the end of one comment, Toby says:

Moreover, if this IS taken to be so, absolutely NO ONE will produce ANY form of work which can be copied for free, because they could never recapture what it cost them to produce it.

So - no more films, no more songs, no more plays… excepting in so much as there might be other ways to still make money from them (cinema showing, theatrical performances) which permit money still to be made.

Toby the Economist, slashdot comment

To which I say:

This is demonstrably false. People have been making music and performing plays for thousands of years even though they can be more or less easily copied. Long before the invention of copyright. They’re still doing it today. To give one example, the fashion “industry” is thriving despite not having copyright. People are producing all kinds of work and releasing it directly into the public domain and allowing it to be used with Creative Commons licenses.

Times change, and culture adapts. Other people have rightly pointed out to you that culture comes from all of us. The idea that every innovator can control all future use of their innovation, if implemented as law, would stifle future creative output. We’re all standing on the shoulders of others. I think it is very shortsighted to imagine whatever “new” work you have created does not rely on the input of countless thousands of others, and that if they or their descendants could lay claim to the parts that “belong” to them, you would never be able to afford your derivative.