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It’s only a number

I’m reading a law paper by Eben Moglen whilst sitting on a bed with sunlight pouring in the windows… [oops, I spoke too soon. Here come the rain. This is Ireland.] In short, he explains why Copyright is dead meat. Although written in 1999 it is still relevant. The death throws of Copyright will require a few more decades to play to their final denouement, but there is little doubt of that end.

To say I agree is an understatement. I’ve expressed my thoughts on this many times over the years, for example in this 1995 article. As I said then and in more depth in 1999, Copyright depends on the embodiment of ideas in physical form. It is a creature of Gutenberg’s invention. In the 21st Century we are moving on towards something else. I’m about as likely to project correctly what that “something else” is as would a writer in the first decades of the printed word so I won’t even try.

And here comes the sun again…

17 comments to It’s only a number

  • Joe

    A lot of the supposed problem here is just a legal scam.

    Any case where illegal transfer of intellectual property has taken place for the fraudulent/illegal use or sale of that property then the problem is fairly obvious when the “intent” is taken into account. When lawyers (et al) start trying to claim that the medium used to convey the property is the property then you have entered the realm of the silly. Its like trying to say the paper is the writing.

    This will all be thrashed out very expensively until either courts start dealing harshly with all the twisted lawyers or someone with a little bit of sense points out that as its intellectual property that is being dealt with then its really intellectual motive (i.e. intent) which is being taken into account and the courts start treating these cases on copyright of the idea and not the copyright of the medium…

    …Culling a few lawyers wouldn’t go amiss though 😉

  • S. Weasel

    …either courts start dealing harshly with all the twisted lawyers or someone with a little bit of sense…

    I despair of either of these things. I was listening to a soundbite yesterday from the lawyer who just lost the McDonald’s suit (the “fast food is addictive and deceptively advertised” suit got tossed out, for those who haven’t heard). He basically shrugged and said, “we brought 700 tobacco suits before we won one. We can afford to keep going here, too.”

  • Tony H

    It would be useful to know whether Dale, or those commentators who on past experience with the subject of copyright on this blog tend to chip in, themselves produce “intellectual property”. I do, and it tends to give one a slightly different perspective compared with the gee-whiz it’s all gotta change school of thought.

  • Dale,

    you might be right, and there may be no way to preserve copyright, but I don’t think that this prospect is very appealing.

    Are writers, musicians or makers of computer games work going to work for free? Pointing to open source software isn’t exactly an answer; the commitment of each open source programmer is only part-time, he devotes only as much time and effort as he can afford working for free. This may well be an improvement over commercial programs when it comes to applications, but a real work of art requires total commitment. There may be competently done computer games, novels or music that way, but mostly the quality will be low, due to a half-hearted follow-through on ideas and concepts that may or may not be excellent.

    There is another factor that has indirectly to do with money, and that is the necessary leadership when it comes to collaborative efforts. If there is nobody with a clear vison what the project is all about it simply won’t get anywhere; it may not anyway, but it a necessary condition for success. Without that leadership and the imposition
    of this clear vision, the result will lack focus, satisfying nobody, even if it is not actively dismal.
    And without money this leadership will lack legitimacy. If you can’t say “This is my firm and my money that I invested in it and that’s why I get to tell you what to do” why should anybody do what you say, except maybe charisma? Not everybody with a artistic vision has charisma, after all.

    Now, I can think of some alternative ways to make money from intellectual work in the absence of intellectual property, but none of them seems very attractive to me.

    1) Consumers of the final product making voluntary payments, but I don’t think this is really viable. Once copyright has disappeared as a concept as well as a legal reality, people won’t want to pay for content. Users of file-sharing services are just the “vanguard” of this trend.

    2) Preorders. Customers enter a commitment to buy the final product; once enough people have signed up for it, development can begin. The problem is that consumers will have no way of knowing what the product is going to be like, making signing up for it unattractive.

    3) Subscriptions. People sign up a subscription to a music group or team of programmers; in exchange they get whatever they produce inside an agreed period of time. This suffers from the same problem as option 2), with the added problem that there is no way to tell how much product there is going to be, not just good it will be.

    4) Patents, even without copyright (the concept seems dubious to me, thus the question-mark. So far I haven’t even mentioned firms doing costly research. Without copyright they won’t be willing to invest money, or they’ll try to keep their findings secret (even without copyright there won’t be a legal requirement to publish what you know), slowing down or even preventing the dissemination of new knowledge. On the other hand, patents as they are now are meant to offer a balance between firms’ interest in making a profit from their research and the public interest in having new knowledge spread.

    I think that the best way to do it would be to continue issuing limited patents. Then again, without the concept of copyrights this will be very unpopular and not enforceable (how do you stop reverse-engineering?). This probably will mean that researchers will keep their results secret. I do share the notion that information should be free, but not when that information which is free is worth as much as you pay for it.

  • Rob Read

    The absence of copyright will be a good thing.

    Real Musicians will be paid to perform at concerts. Not keep music execs in cocaine.

    Computer games will be mainly MMORPG subscriptions (see steam etc.)

    Computer programs will be service based, and add value over the internet e.g. hotmail etc. This will protect their development but keep it available.

    No copyright does not mean no-profit, it just focuses on protecting your work and where you can add value.

    I think it will be excellent for business, and I’m a IT developer.

  • Patrick

    Rob Read, while you might be a “IT Developer” that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily come up with a good argument about this industry. The reasons you think copyright’s decline is a good thing are pretty absurd. I’ll grant you, some of the things you mentioned are good things, but they fail to take into consideration any of the unintended consequences that will occur as a result. For example, its true that bands will make the money through touring and the record execs won’t be “sniffing cocaine” (you shouldn’t make these foolish generalizations, anyone who listens to your argument will be less likely to continue reading after seeing the patent [pardon the pun] ignorance of these claims), but have you ever wondered why some bands are able to fill Wembley or huge colloseums? This is all because the record execs are able to market the bands and get the attention and the p.r. out. If it weren’t for the record execs, these bands would still be playing truck stops and coffee shops. Is this what you want? Your favorite band playing a circuit of small bars, barely making ends meet (sadly most bands that do this, good or bad, run out of money and stop touring). Getting back to the copyright problem, I can’t see most of my favorite bands continuing to make money without copyrights. Sure there’ll be a revival of folk music and there’s a lot of good folk music, but instead that will be the only thing you’ll hear anymore. Since you’re an IT developer you might not have a very creative artistic side, but realize that some artists are very possesive about their product. They might be a little upset that once they write something (especially if its really good), they won’t have anything to show for that product. I don’t see how anyone would want to create something without getting credit for it. And what are these “MMORPG” computer games. I admit i’m not as much as a computer nerd as the guy at Android’s Dungeon, but I do like to play computer games. However, i have no idea what you’re talking about, it sounds like some D&D thing or some type of game that has a small cult following. I’m sure these types of games are fun, but we don’t need to have them foisted on us. I like to play Civilization III and Rainbow Six, it sounds like the eradication of copyrights will eradicate the development of those games as well.

    Anyways, i don’t mean to be hostile, I just thought this whole thread on the eradication of copyrights is patently (hehe) absurd. Please disagree with me, change my mind, I invite you.

  • Patrick Marnham

    ‘I spoke too soon. Here come the rain. This is Ireland’ — actually, *Dale*, I think you’ll find it’s Northern Ireland you’re in, where the weather is better, because the weather is British. Yank tosspot.

  • Massive Multiplayer Online RolePlaying Game…who wants to play against some stupid algorithm when you can play against thousands of other players? I agree that this is the future of computer games, the subscription costs for them now are a much larger revenue stream than buying the program (indeed, some online game vendors only charge for the game because then only folks serious enough to subscribe will play it: less system load from un-serious dabblers).

  • Dale Amon

    It never ceases to amaze me how hyper-sensitive some persons are. This thread is not about Irish politics and any attempts to take it that way will be deleted.

    Now… the issue on copyright is a matter of technological and cultural change. Time doesn’t care whose ox or wallet gets gored. Things just change. You either figure out how to work with the new or you stay with the sinking ship.

    I happen to know a great deal about ip in both computing and music. (I’m a card carrying member of IMRO, the Irish Music Rights Organization). I’ve also worked extensively in computerized automation systems. I used to be a top coder in PDP-11 assembly. I today consider that about the equivalent of saying I was once an expert stagecoach wheel maker. Times change and you change with them or else you get in your rocking chair and gripe about the good old days…

  • Anyone intersted in Intellectual property might like to look at my very humble essay on the issue:
    Copyright and other IP rights

  • Cydonia

    Copyright is a particularly hard issue for hard-core libertarians because there are strong economic arguments in its favour (probably a lot stronger than for patents), but at the same time it is pre-eminently an economic public good.

    It is thus difficult to see how it could ever evolve or be sustained without a coercive State. Not a problem for minarchists but a potential problem for anarchos.


  • There are strong economic arguments against it, too, in that for a given piece of copyright material, utility is maximised by the maximum number of copies being made, and the number of copies will increase as the price drops. However, that is only for one piece of copyright material, and by dropping the price to zero we lower incentives for other people to create more copyright material in future. So some kind of balance has to be reached, and it isn’t easy to figure out just where the best place for it is.

    Oddly, I find the case for patents to be stronger than copyrights, personally, at least I do for sensible patents. I find it unimaginable that drugs companies would keep developing drungs without patent laws, but if copyright law was eliminated I tend to thing people would still write books and compose music.

  • Abuse of intellectual-property law is one of the few real weak spots in libertarianism. Intellectual property rights would clearly be a good idea in a perfect world, but when administered by imperfect governments they can be obstructive.

    That sounds familiar somehow…

    Meanwhile we can carry out a worst-case analysis. (We already have a taste of that in Scientology.) Ideas can be patented forever. Words can have a copyright. Potentially embarrassing information counts as a trade secret. Most important of all, “look and feel” can be patented. Anyone who wants to complain can be arrested for the illegal use of other people’s concepts. They can’t even make up their own terminology since that would violate someone else’s patent on the look and feel of liberty. (Libertarians to liberals: You thought we were just brain-channeled drones unable to think of the above possibilities. Nyaaaahhhh, nyaaaahhhh, nyaaaahhhh, nyaaaahhhh, phphphphtttt!!!! One of the side-effects of libertarianism is an apparent regression in emotional age.)

    One way to look at intellectual-property rights is that they have to be discovered instead of being dreamed up a priori. A society that can export its ideas has a good claim to be using a better approximation of the True Axioms of Property Rights. (I’m using exports to measure the worth of a society’s ideas since any society can claim they have better ideas but exporting ideas means people in other societies also agree.) For example, you can make a case that Finnish ideas are better for computer software but American ideas are better for pharmaceuticals.

  • M. Simon

    Given the “right” manipulation and key any number can be turned into any other number. I have no idea the ramifications of this.

    If software cannot be copyrighted then the tendency will be to embody that software only in a physical device. I think this will reduce the benefits of software. It is a way to make software pay.


    S. Weasel,

    The lawyer is absolutely correct from a brain function standpoint that the Big Mac is addictive. You dismiss him too easily.

    What is wrong is our concept of addiction.

    The lawyer is only taking advantage of our superstition.

    The way out of this is to give up our superstition.

    Most chronic behaviors are a way of dealing with pain by those genetically inclined.

    M. Simon

  • Cydonia

    Michael Jennings:

    “Oddly, I find the case for patents to be stronger than copyrights, personally, at least I do for sensible patents.”

    Patents would be ok if they only conferred protection for the period it would have taken for the product to be discovered by someone else. However, it is difficult to see why a patent should confer 15 years of protection if X product would have been discovered by others within 6 months.

    Copyright doesn’t have that problem because the subject of copyright does not involve a competetive discovery process.

    As to whether copyrightable products would be produced without copyright … First, they would certainly be produced in smaller quantities. Second, the benefits of copyright are not just concerned with the process of artistic creation. They also extend to commercial distribution which would definitely be far more expensive without the protection of copyright.

    So copyright still gets my vote in preference to patents.

  • Dave F

    I am a writer and journalist and as far as I am concerned, that means as the creator of the work I decide where, when and how to publish. If you are saying that in future I will have no right or control either monetarily or otherwise over my own creations, I have to point out to you that this means publishers will cease to exist, since they will not be able to prevent proliferation of sources of obtaining the published material free of charge.

    If you are therefore saying I have no right to profit in monetary terms from my own work, then why should I bother to produce it? I’m f–d if I’m going to let you steal it off me. Copyright isn’t dead meat, because if it is, creative work is dead meat. Of course, that may well be the destruction of civilisation that appears to be proceeding at pace.

    I don’t give a toss about the communist notion that my property (creative or otherwise) belongs to everybody. It doesn’t. If things go in that direction, then I for one will be joining the crackers in trying to bring down the internet once and for all, since it will be reduced to its naked state: the trading of totally useless ideas (99 percent of it is like that now).

  • Bill Dooley

    Have you ever tried running Linux?

    I have, several times, in several flavors. It it a gross PITA, and the Linux snobs in the news groups enjoy shaming newcomers.

    When I Installed Windows XP Professional on my PC, it found all my hardware and ran without a hitch, even established the connection to my cable modem service, through which I now write, without intervention.

    I could go on at length with my complaints about Windows, but this latest incarnation does the job for me.

    Bill Dooley
    Reno, NV