The phrase intellectual property does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, and for very good reason. The phrase is a lie. It turns ideas into land, and allows corporations who own the vast majority of patents and copyrights to control anyone who doesn't serve them. - Dana BlankenhornRecently the big content companies have been pushing harder than ever to strengthen Intellectual Property laws. They've already won 95-year copyright terms, the ability to get trivial patents on software and business methods (in the U.S.), multiple distressing provisions in the DMCA, and a worldwide IP regime thanks to the tireless efforts of WIPO. But they still aren't satisfied, of course. Broadcasters want copy protection on TV and radio, and the U.S. Attorney General wants stiffer penalties for copyright infringement. If Open Source is socialism, then we could call IP law fascism.
But as I've said, copyright infringement isn't stealing: the only reason stealing is wrong is that the victim loses something, but a person whose stuff is copied loses nothing. The fact that the theif gains something is irrelevant. Perhaps a more appropriate word would be "cheating": you're cheating the law, and more importantly, you're cheating the copyright holder out of money (s)he would've received otherwise.
However, we should ask ourselves whether this is necessary. Why is it, if I copy something, that the copyright holder is cheated out of his income? What if there were a way for the author, singer, songwriter, programmer, or cast to get paid, without obsessively trying to deter, obstruct or prosecute every citizen who wants to make a copy?
And what is the fundamental purpose of copyright law, anyway? According to the US Constitution, it is "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts". I would further submit that the reason we want to promote science and the arts is to optimize the health of society and happiness of everyone, to the extent that such a thing is possible.
But how can constricting the otherwise free flow of information, as copyright does in the Internet Age, promote Progress? How does it benefit society? Who would disagree with me when I say that it doesn't?
Practically speaking, the way we promote the sciences and the arts is by paying money to scientists and artists. And programmers like me, by the way. Right now, the same copyright law that inhibits information flow, encourages secret source code, and encourages the RIAA to sue teenagers, also provides a way for artists and programmers to make money. At least some of the time. It also pays for
- Enormous amounts of marketing and advertising, which is economic deadweight;
- Lawyers to write EULAs, DRM, and other forms of copy protection--more economic deadweight;
- Lots of litigation;
- Duplication of effort by software developers, medical researchers, educators, and others; and
- Lobbyists and campaign funding to help make IP laws stronger.
- Paying programmers: if you worked on Microsoft Windows, Bill Gates probably got a bigger share of the profits than you did. If you write open-source software, then you probably get paid almost nothing. There are some people who are paid to make free software, but copyright law doesn't deserve the credit for that.
- Distributing the wealth: am I the only one that thinks there's something wrong with a few people making millions or billions with the help of copyright law, while so many authors make very little money? I suppose that this is considered acceptable due to a "lottery effect"--a tendency people have to glorify winners and not worry about losers, even if they themselves are among them. If it were only the authors of crappy junk that faced difficulty, I wouldn't mind, but I'm sure that my dear readers can think of some examples where quality work went unrewarded.
- Producing works efficiently: for most books, movies and music, it only takes a few people to produce a work, and once it is made, there is no need to make modifications. However, in more intellectual fields, such as software and medical science, new works are virtually always based on work that has already been done. Copyrights and patents put walls between researchers and between closed-source software developers, so that the work of one person is often not available to others. Sometimes, as when a programmer switches to a different company, even the work he did himself is off-limits to re-use. This results in pointless duplication of effort on an immesurable (but certainly big) scale. (To be fair, it should be noted that a lot of duplication would happen anyway: comparable open-source projects often fail to share code. Heck, I often fail to re-use my own old code, having forgotten about it. I know, this should be a footnote, but blogspot doesn't have 'em.)
- Your bullet point here.
But what if we could pay authors, yet allow free copying, as well as the freedom to create derivative works? I saw a proposal recently for such a system. It seemed to me that the provisions of the proposal were too arbitrary, but it got me thinking about the problem.
The proposal suggests creating a kind of "public domain bubble" for open-source software development. I call it a bubble because it would be largely separated from the regular IP system; it would be tax-funded, and "it would probably be necessary to require that anyone receiving funding through this system be ineligible for IPR protection for any of their work for a substantial period of time." I'm not sure this is necessary or a good idea, although I haven't dreamt up an alternative yet. The proposal also includes
- a group of experts in the software field who would make funding decisions related to the more esoteric software in computer system;
- a $100 million prize fund to reward important software breakthroughs; and
- an "Artistic Freedom Voucher", a coupon with a certain dollar value that would allow individuals to direct tax money to any specific artists or groups they desire.
After reading the proposal, I realized that there's no need to limit ourselves to software. I realized for the first time that all information could be free: movies, TV shows, music, books, articles, academic papers, computer software, video games, medicinal formulas, the whole shebang. I also realized that the economy could be efficient at IP production, provided that important characteristics of capitalism (such as mass decision making) are preserved.