Saturday, November 26, 2005

Let's Free Everything

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 Blankenhorn
Recently 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.
Meanwhile, it does a fairly poor job of
  • 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.
Until very recently, I supported copyright law in general, because I didn't see an obvious alternative.

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.
I plan to update this article soon with some ideas of my own. Until then, :P.

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.


Blake Handler said...

While you may feel more comfortable that "copying" is not stealing -- let me put this another way.

If I make a product that sells for $100 and you steal it I can't get my $100 -- and I'm guessing you agree this is wrong.

If I make a product and someone copies it, and it is given to many people -- how can I still make $100 for the product?

While the product was not stolen -- it no longer has the same value. Copying is not "stealing" but it devalues the product, period!

So while you wrote a very nice article stating that it's not "stealing" you do not deal with the fact that it is wrong to get something for free when OBVIOUSLY the material was NOT meant to be for free. It's up to the person that CREATED the software to state if they want to give it away freely -- not the public!

So would you care to come up with a SOLUTION?

Qwertie said...

Calm down. The solution is in there, so I guess you didn't read it.

I don't see how copying "devalues" a product. Sometimes, there's an opposite argument to be made. For example, thanks to network effects (and MS being the sole steward of its "doc" format), the selling price of MS Word may be higher than it would have been without piracy.

"It's up to the person that created the software to state if they want to give it away freely"

As the linked article explains, the free software system would exist in parallel with the traditional system, so even with a new system in place, you'd be right.

Blake Handler said...

Sir -- I "am" calm. Yes I read your "answer" but it was not a solution. Nor do you choose to deal with my question. (Which is fine, after all this is YOUR blog!)

If I'm an artist and paint a picture that sells for $10,000 and I also agree to a limited printing of 1,000 prints. I would make the money that "I" decided to earn.

But your premise is: "I don't see how copying devalues a product?"

1) If the painting is freely copied and not sold -- how will the artist make the money that THEY choose to make on their own creation?

2) More importantly, the Artist only wanted 1,000 copies printed -- this is to ensure that the value of the collectable is retained. What happens to the value of a "collectable" if many copies can freely be made?

I too love "free" things, but we can not simply state "what" we would like for free. Knowning that stealing is wrong is great -- but not knowing (or wishing) that "copying" devalues a product
misses the point of owning your own creation.

Qwertie said...

Blake, I'll tolerate your antagonism for the sake of free speech, if you'll lay "off the" random "orthography" and the YELLING (referring to your first post).

You've said a number of things that I can't agree with as written.

"the fact that it is wrong to get something for free when OBVIOUSLY the material was NOT meant to be for free"

That is nothing but your personal opinion, not a fact.

'I read your "answer" but it was not a solution'

Maybe I'm not sure what problem you want to solve, or what question you want answered. I thought the problem was how to get money into the hands of authors (& painters, etc.) who deserve it.

'I would make the money that "I" decided to earn.'

That doesn't make much sense to me. If you sell prints, it seems like you'll only make money if customers decide to buy them. You can't "decide" to make money.

'not knowing (or wishing) that "copying" devalues a product misses the point of owning your own creation'

Sorry, but this statement just doesn't compute to me.

Now, on to your questions.

"1) If the painting is freely copied and not sold -- how will the artist make the money that THEY choose to make on their own creation?"

Again, you can't simply decide to make money. The money you make is a function of a many factors, most of which are not under your control.

Now, of course, in our current IP system, it's pretty difficult to make money from something that can be freely copied. As someone who's written freeware and free software, I know this all too well. Precisely because of my experiences as a software developer, I have come to a strong conviction that selling copies (or even auxilliary services, as some companies that rely on OSS do) should not be the only way to make money from your work.

That's why I think an alternative system should be created, which would enrich society by allowing everyone to enjoy creative works (paintings, programs, etc) while paying authors also.

The linked article describes such a system for software, and it could easily be extended to other kinds of intellectual output. Frankly, I think there are some problems in the proposal, but as I said in my blog entry, I will talk more about that later.

"2) More importantly, the Artist only wanted 1,000 copies printed -- this is to ensure that the value of the collectable is retained. What happens to the value of a 'collectable' if many copies can freely be made?"

To answer your question directly, and assuming that "value" means "the market price of a copy", then a (singular) copy would have less value (or no value, in some cases). And if this is all you wanted to say, then I'm sorry I misunderstood. On the other hand, the qualitative value to society, the total monetary value of all copies, and the sentimental value to the owner of a copy, are different matters which should be distinguished.

However, I get the impression that you feel that "a collectable" should have a lot of value. However, I just don't see an inherent value to society (or even to the author of the collectable) of having things that are "collectable" in the sense that their market value is vastly greater than their cost of production. Are you a painter yourself? Perhaps then you could explain why you would be pleased by the fact that copies of your work are scarce.