Copyright, like abortion, is one of those issues that is pretty pointless to debate online. Most people have entrenched positions and refuse to accept the validity of opposing views which may come from a different perspective. However every couple of years I end up reading something that draws me into making a comment online. This year it was the post Scott Adams' Pointy Haired Views On Copyright by Mike over at TechDirt in response to Scott Adams's post Is Copyright Violation Stealing?. I tend to avoid TechDirt because I find the writing particularly poor, full of monotonous arguments and specious generalizations. The article Scott Adams' Pointy Haired Views On Copyright is no exception, I felt dumber after reading the article.

Thanks to the Mike's article I've decided to write this rant on how to avoid sounding like a 15 year old high off the fact he can download the latest Billboard Top 100 hits off of The Pirate Bay without coughing up $15 for a CD when talking about copyright on your favorite message board or "social news" site.

Lots of folks who debate copyright on the Web are familiar with the Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution

Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, also known as the Copyright Clause, gives Congress the power to enact statutes To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

Lots of folks throw this statement around but never really internalize what it means. A key purpose of giving authors and other content creators exclusive rights to their intellectual property is to enable them to be rewarded financially from their works for some time before allowing these creations to become "owned" by society. This is supposed to be an incentive that enables the creation of a professional class of content creators and thus benefits society by increasing the number and quality of copyrighted works as well as creating a market/economy around copyrighted works.

Most arguments against copyright laws are directly or indirectly an attempt to challenge the existence or benefits afforded the professional class of content creators. It should be noted that professionals dominate practically all areas of content creation (i.e. professionally created content is most popular or most valuable) even when you consider newer areas of content creation that have shown up in the past decade or so. For example, if you look at the Technorati Top 100 Most Popular Blogs you will notice that a media format that was popularized by amateurs now has its most popular content (i.e. of interest to the most members of the society) being content that is created by people who make their living directly or indirectly from blogging.

Now lets look at some of the anti-copyright arguments that are common on TechDirt which are mentioned or alluded to in the linked article, Scott Adams' Pointy Haired Views On Copyright

  1. Giving Away Intellectual Property for Free is Free Advertising: It's only free advertising if there is something of even more value that the content creator can sell. In many cases, this simply isn't the case. And trying to apply that rule uniformly is as foolish as trying to point out that since companies like Microsoft and IBM give away free T-shirts with corporate logos as a form of advertising then Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch should do so as well. What's good for the goose isn't necessarily good for the gander.

  2. Copyright infringement isn't stealing because the copyright owner still has the original item: This is one of those attempts to split semantic hairs instead of debating the actual cost of copyright infringement. What the copyright owner loses when people pirate his or her materials is the ability to sell to those customers who are using the pirated goods. The more people who choose to grab the latest songs off the Internet for free, the less money the music industry makes. Not only is this common sense, it is a documented fact. Pointing out that copyright infringement doesn't meet some 17th century definition of the verb "steal" because the original property isn't changing hands is like arguing that calling your ex-girlfriend a slut isn't libel because you only said it to people over IM.

  3. Successful copyright holders and content creators are rich so they deserve copyright infringement: One of the main problems with capitalism is that it leads to inequity. The inequity of capitalism is why the founders of Google and Microsoft have more money than ten Dare Obasanjos could make in a dozen lifetimes. However the balance for society is that in exchange for getting rich, they have built companies and products that add value to our society. This is the fundamental exchange of capitalism, you provide people with something of value and in turn they give you money. If enough people think you have provided something of value then you get rich. Being jealous of someone's wealth isn't a good reason to advocate theft copyright infringement especially since given that we are in a capitalist society their wealth is a direct reflection of how much value they've brought to society.

  4. Copyright take too long to fall into the public domain: The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (aka The Mickey Mouse Protection Act) and the laws before it now make it so that copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years or 95 years for content created by a corporation. Many feel that his is excessive especially since it is now quite likely that no works created during the average person's lifetime will fall into the public domain in their lifetime. It is true that the pendulum may have swung to far towards the wants of copyright holders in this regard but it should be noted that even if we did go back to the rules from the Copyright Act of 1790, it is unlikely that the "free stuff" brigade on sites like TechDirt would be happy with copyrights that lasted only 14 years.

  5. Middlemen like record labels and publishers make most of the money from copyrighted works: The fact that an artist or author doesn't make 100% of the money you spend on their works doesn't justify spending zero on their work. After all getting a cut of the money you spent on purchasing their content is better than getting nothing from you. Secondly, middlemen make a bulk of the money in the content industry because they provide funding and exposure to content producers. The people who provide the funding to content producers tend to make a killing whether it is a publisher who funds a book that ends up on the New York Times bestseller list or a venture capitalist that funds a tiny startup that becomes a multibillion dollar company. Thanks to the Web, content producers who feel that they do not need the funding and exposure provided by these middlemen now have a way to route around that system. Consumers should not rob infringe the copyrights of content producers because they don't like that the financial backers who funded the creation of the content are making a lot of money from it.

After reading that, it is probably clear why reading the monotonous and ill-considered arguments on TechDirt gets old for me. If you are going to be writing about copyright on the Web, keep these notes on the default anti-copyright arguments in mind before engaging your keyboard next time you feel like ranting about the RIAA, MPAA, BSA or Metallica.


Categories: Rants
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