“Current copyright law does not merely distort some markets — rather it destroys entire markets.” So reads the final line of a report released by the Republican Study Committee of the House of Representatives that is highly critical of current copyright law.
== Are Patents and copyrights Inherently Evil? ==
The report points accurately to many of the flaws that have crept into modern copyright. Including the absolutely false notion that Intellectual Property is — or ever was — about what the content creators “deserve” or are “entitled to” by virtue of their creation. Or that the purpose of copyright is to benefit the creator. Rather, the purpose of copyright is to benefit the public: to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.”
Ars Technica heaps further praise: “The memo, titled ‘Three Myths about Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix it,’ is a direct assault on the relentlessly pro-copyright worldview dominating Washington for decades.” It is certainly worthwhile to go visit these two linked articles and see what the fuss is about…
… before pausing, taking a step back, and lamenting that even the Good Guys in this controversy proudly display shallow thinking while smugly proclaiming themselves to be wise.
To be clear, I pay college bills for my kids out of my copyrights and patents. Nevertheless, I am philosophically willing to posit that people should not and cannot inherently “own” ideas or knowledge in any fundamental way, even if they created it in the first place. They have interests, some rights. But those are more constrained.
Moreover, let me further avow that IP law has become a warped thing, twisted by lobbyists to serve the interests of mighty corporations and not the public or progress. All of the complaints cited in the articles have valid points that should be addressed. And yes, the chief villains are those who would use “ownership” to make “intellectual property” serve lawyers and oligarchs, rather than creative people.
Still, I am unsympathetic to those who righteously demand the very opposite, tearing down all copyrights and patents, under the proclaimed theory that we would then automatically enter some sort of Open Source Nirvana. An Age of Aquarius and infinite sharing and endless voluntary creativity.
Yipe! I lived through that sort of talk in the 1960s. And what species do these fellows think they are part of? Elsewhere I have repeatedly proved that I am a friend to the Maker and Open Source movements! But please, don’t make it religious dogma. We are practical men and women, with practical problems to solve.
I come close to despair over how proudly ignorant all the righteous people are (right or left, techie or troglodyte) about actual human history. For example, have you ever heard of the Antikythera Device? The Baghdad Battery? The fabulous piston steam engines of Hero of Alexandria? Our ancestors were creative people! Yet, all of those technological advances and a myriad others were lost! Why?
Until you can answer that question clearly, you will never grasp why patents and copyrights were invented in the first place. And you should always understand the thing that you want to replace.
Put yourself into the shoes of an inventor or innovator in 99% of human cultures. Unless you found a patron in the king, you had only one way to benefit from your innovation — by keeping it secret! By scribbling your designs in cryptic verse and murky code, in just one carefully guarded grimoire, in a hidden attic. Under a floorboard. Only then could you keep customers flocking to you… till the clever blacksmith in the next town reverse engineered your improvement and started competing with you.
And when you and your son died in a plague or fire? Or when the town was pillaged… what happened then to your invention? Do you get the picture? Secrecy slows things down, and very often means that advances are simply lost. And yes, this resonates with The Transparent Society – should you be surprised? Self-interested secrecy was the failure mode that ruined human progress for at least ten thousand years, keeping the process clogged and slow.
A way had to be found that would lure inventors out into the open, eager to announce, avow and declare their innovations! While pondering how to fix the flaws in Intellectual Property, we are fools if we don’t consider how much better things got, when it was invented.
Go. Read history. Hold conversations with Ben Franklin in your mind. Maybe even read The Transparent Society. Understand the actual problem. Then, instead of railing at us quasi-religious incantations like “information wants to be free” come up with another way to keep creative people shouting “look what I just came up with!” Instead of slumping back into the old ways that stifled innovation for 10,000 years.
Then we can talk about a replacement solution, admitting that it is time for patents and copyrights to give way, gradually, to another innovation. Another invention.
* After-note for authors! If you sold rights to your copyrighted works after 1978, you should be aware that based on Section 203 of the 1978 Copyright Act, authors may cut away any contract after 35 years. It happens that my own very first book contract (Sundiver) was signed in the year… 1978… and is coming due for such a release or renewal right about… now.) It is still a world where you’re well-advised to keep informed. Now go and be creative.