Some Dangerous Copyright Myths
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” - A. Einstein
Copyright has an enormous influence on the advancement of culture and the way authors produce creative works and are rewarded for them. Unfortunately, these days, copyright is both abused by some and vehemently criticized by (many more) others, who require nothing less than its abolition.
In my opinion, the second category can be divided in two classes. The first one, which I am convinced constitutes the greater majority of the no-copyright crowd, comprises freeloaders. These are the people who say things like "information wants to be free" when what they really mean, consciously or not, is "I want something for free". One of the better proofs I know is a 2005 poll which asked 4500 Italian high school students which profession they considered best.
The majority of these teenagers, who surely "share" copyrighted music as often as they can while boasting that musicians should only make money in person, through live performances, didn't give actor or movie director as their answer: the most popular choice was music producer.
In their own way, freeloaders are just as wrong, motivated (often inconsciously) only by self interests and oversimplifying the situation as the executives of music multinationals.
The second category of abolitionists is made by wonderful people of any age, very honest and consistent, but who frankly seem to me either superficial or too much in love of their craft to see the big picture or, even more frequently, have simply never stopped to think the whole thing through. My strictly personal impression, not supported by any numerical data, is that most Free Software supporters fall in this second group.
It is right and necessary to oppose the excesses of the current system. It is foolish and counterproductive, however, to ask for a complete abolition of copyright because one believes one or more very popular myths. The rest of this essay analyzes the weaknesses of these myths. A separate essay proposes instead some fundamental parts of the solution.
1. Myth: Since no "intellectual property" can exist, no right to limit redistribution can exist
This argument usually goes as follows: "If something is intangible and infinitely reproducible, why should copying and (re) distributing it be limited? Property, or the right to limit the use that others do with something, only makes sense when applied to material, finite objects and resources". The truth is that the actual text of a poem or a good manual may be intangible and infinitely shareable, but the time to create it is finished, limited and worth much more than the price of one copy.
This also applies to works which may appear as a mere reshuffling of information, like many non-fiction texts. The fact that many of the concepts in such works had already been expressed doesn't automatically lessen the author's effort and his or her right to compensation: the main/real value of such works could just be in how ideas and feelings are communicated, explained and linked to each other as never before. Tim Berners-Lee himself, father of the World Wide Web, said in an interview:
Note that search engines are much worse than humans at solving this problem. We have no time to re-do everything ourselves, and it is not easy anyway: we should recognize and reward those who save us all that time and make us see things we could have missed otherwise, even if we had had all the time in the world.
If material incentives stopped to exist only because it is possible to redistribute at little or no cost digitized works, it would be a loss for humanity, because many talented authors could not afford anymore the time needed to create new works. Their time is a finite property, and if you want it used for the common good you have to pay for it.
"Intellectual Property" is indeed a very generic and confusing term, something that "leads to simplistic thinking" that should be avoided. But this is no reason or justification at all to conclude that copyright should be abolished.
2. Myth: What is good for software is good for every other creative activity
Free (as in Freedom) Software makes a very smart use of copyright for the common good. Copyright remains a much simpler way to protect or share software than patents, tradermarks and so on. It is also hard to believe that, if copyright didn't exist at all or software were not copyrightable, there would be no need for the GNU GPL or similar licenses. Without the obligations imposed by those licenses, which are enforceable only if there is such a thing as author's rights and it can also be applied to source code, it would be perfectly legal to modify existing software and redistribute or sell the resulting binaries without sharing any changes. In such a world there would be much less sharing of software design knowledge.
Now, while software design is just as difficult and creative as composing music or writing a novel, it is not equivalent to them at all. What works wonders for software, like the GNU GPL, may be just stupid, or create serious problems, if we tried to apply it 'as is' to other creative works. This would remain true even if software were declared not copyrightable and it became mandatory to publish the source code of every software program in existence. Note that the FSF itself offers, also for these reasons, a Free Documentation License which is different from the one recommended for software source code.
It is silly to treat, for example, literary works like source code only because both are combination of the same letters, spaces and punctuation symbols. Or, for that matter, to say, like Moglen, that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in digital format is undistinguishable by, and just as freely movable as, the number expressed by the same bits. So? While I am writing this, I have on my desk a piece of wood I use as a paperweight and a really good book with almost the same shape and weight. They can be moved and passed around in the same way. They can't be copied infinite times at almost null cost, but so what? Does external appearance alone make them undistinguishable and worth the same?
Source code is just an intermediate step, not the the final, finished and profoundly different stage of the creative work, that machine code is. The purpose of software programs is to help men to solve problems. The reason for their existence is to serve their end users in their executable form. They are just tools, as long as they don't lock data into proprietary or undocumented formats. Nobody downloads source code only to read it, without ever compiling it and using the resulting program (programming students don't count, of course). Nor is a complete software program ever written just to publish its source code, without ever using its final result. Source code remains a way to build tools, a means to an end. A poem or a novel, instead, is the final result.
The objective quality of a program (that is, the benefits its existence brings to humanity) can be easily measured: if it runs faster, crashes less, takes less memory and so on... it is better. For the same reason it makes sense if the development process of that tool is open and everybody can contribute patches (as long as you still believe that users and developers are always the same people): it's easy to see if a patch made the program better.
The fact that software just exists to serve end users as an executable also justifies the Free Software principle that you must not make money out of hiding information, but through related services.
Since source code is only useful by means of its executable form, hiding it with copyright or other means would indeed prevent others from sharing knowledge. When you buy a book, instead, nothing of the knowledge that makes it worthwhile is hidden (unless you bought it not to read the text, but to look how it's bound).
Freely redistributable source code is good and necessary also because it can be ported to new processors. Books don't need to be reprinted because some brand of glasses goes out of fashion. The fact that the knowledge in books can disappear when they go out of print is a separate issue with a separate solution.
3. Myth: All creative activities give equal opportunities to make a comfortable living even without copyright
This belief that any kind of author has so many alternatives to make a living from his or her creative talent alone is very strong, because it's a very convenient one: "it's not my fault if he's lazy". Apart from traditional publishing, many other profit models would surely exist, especially now that "the information age will allow artists to offer many more personalised services than before". We should return to those happy times when musicians where payed to actually do something every day, that is live music versus recording sessions.
Now, this could work and could be fair, for those musicians who actually compose anything, lyrics included, that they play in public, but only for them. What about writers? Should they write a different version of the same book every week, or for every reader? One who can play well in a studio can probably play well even in a theather or pub, but being a great writer doesn't imply at all that one is, for example, a decent teacher.
Live performances? What should writers do, read a whole 400 pages book in a pub or theater every night, to an audience which would enjoy it much more reading it where they feel like it, probably alone, one chapter at a time? Even staying with music, what about lyricists?
4. Myth: all creativity is unstoppable: all good and useful creative works would surely exist anyway, even without copyright
A lot of the "copyright must be abolished" babbling is only about "fiction" (in any art, including music, etc...). What about good "non fiction", where it is much harder to believe that would be created without a material incentive coming from copyright? What about technical manuals, for example, which take thousands of hours of boring work and special equipment? What about the music textbooks, theatre listings or grammar books without which many songs and novels may not have been composed or be widely known?
Going back for a moment to Free/Open Source software, note that in many successful cases (Linux, Apache, Mozilla, OpenOffice, KDE, Gnome) a lot of the quality comes from the direct backing of a foundation or some commercial company! This kind of sponsorship works and doesn't harm society because, again, software is just a tool.
5. Myth: art can and should go on just with the help of rich patrons, fan donations or government funding
Oh, yeah, work on commission. Absolutely nothing wrong with it... as long as you don't base the whole system on it. Proposing a switch to work on commissions comes from the fact that even those who believe myth number 1 cannot deny that skilled labor has a lot of value, much more than the cost of one copy of a work. Therefore, they say, one could and should only work on commission, making sure before beginning that all the effort needed to create that work will be paid in advance or at delivery, rather than being distributed over single copies.
Besides flying right in the face of the "all creativity is unstoppable" myth, this belief has even more serious flaws. As Cory Doctorow put it:
As far as rich patrons are concerned, I don't want to live in a world where we must hope in Donald Trump or Paris Hilton for "advancing" culture; a world where, above all, you must hope that somebody becomes so much richer than all others, no matter how, that he or she can spare some change to advance the arts. I have nothing at all against billionaires, but I don't want any world where they are necessary for any reason. Government funding has the same inherent flaws of individual patronage, except much worse (more on this below). Relying on fan donations could only work with already established artists, so let's just forget about that too.
Let's imagine that there are only individual artists and normally wealthy fans, and that one of them knows, before and more than the artist herself, what she could create next. What is fairer, a fix price for each copy so the cost is equally and transparently shared among all fans... or asking the first one to share the whole load?
Besides this, the main, huge flaw of work on commission is that, by definition, it can only come from whoever (governments, billionaires, corporations...) already has power and big interests to protect. Work on commission by the big guys only produces the kind of works that they like. It only makes sense if you consider art just a tool (to keep the masses hypnotized, for example).
The truth is that, once copyright excesses are removed, charging for single copies is much fairer on all readers (by sharing the load) and puts each one of them in charge for rewarding artists. Why should such a task be reserved to governments?
The fact that work on commission is often proposed as a solution by the very same people who will rant for days on how good it is that the Internet is finally destroying intermediaries, creating direct connections and value for them, etc.. is one of the best proofs for me that its advocates aren't really thinking this through or are just freeloaders looking for noble-sounding justifications.
6. Myth: Copyright is not necessary because humankind and artists did perfectly well without it for centuries
This is the "Mozart was great without copyright, nor did he care about it" school of so-called thought: copyright would be dangerous or at least useless because it is a very recent thing. People who say this deserve all the fines and trials the courts can throw at them.
Universal vote, anti-rape laws, penicillin or the Internet itself are much more recent than copyright, where they are available at all. Does their recent age make them useless? Just forget Mozart, please. Geniuses like him will sprout, create and prosper whatever the system around them. That's no reason to not try to make things better. It's terribly wrong and stupid to create a system that only lets the top artist in every million through. If all and only the bad artists were doomed to starve through cancellation of copyright... the geniuses would grow up in a cultural vacuum that would severely limit their possibilities. Flowers need compost to bloom.
Speaking of a better world: before copyright, almost all artists belonged to three classes of people: idle richs, people under patronage of the idle rich (see previous myth), and people who could afford to live without any reliable income at all, or who lived in poverty, without raising a family, without decent medical assistance and so on.
In all other cases, it's really difficult and time-consuming to go beyond the part-time hobbyist level. A fair copyright system, instead, should make it possible for people who weren't born in a castle and have no need for or interest in a private yacht or plane, to live normally simply out of their creative works. If anything, an age where artists can finally be their own publishers and agents if they so wish, could be just the one when a well done copyright starts doing even more good to society than it was originally planned.
7. Myth: There is nothing wrong, and no damage done, with illegal copies
I'm not sure what's more frightening: DRM and copy controls, or the public attitudes that make them necessary (read on Slashdot).
I've left this particular myth for last because it's not only the most common and easier to believe in without thinking, but also because it is maybe the worst and most dangerous one, even for end users.
According to common wisdom, illegal redistribution of copyrighted material would be the right way to beat the majors and they are not losing money for this. To prove the depth of their analyses, several of these people even confuse "I firmly believe it should not be illegal" with "it is not illegal"! Now, redistributing copyrighted works without respecting their license is illegal, period. By definition: "illegal" is a very precise and formal definition. Something is illegal if the current laws say so. "Right" and "wrong" are different issues.
Of course, some people will buy more music if they can sample it gratis before. But there are many more people, especially youngsters, who only share music illegally and have no intention to ever pay for any of it, knowing that they can get away with this much more easily than if, every morning, they took the first car parked around the corner for a free ride to school. Doing this only because there are absurd prices today is certainly illegal, even if not done for profit, and above all is not necessary and counterproductive. The only results, in the medium and long term, are to:
See the copyright proposal for a much smarter and effective strategy.