Monthly Archives: January 2012

How important is copyright?

I’m a software developer.  Copyright on all my code has been transferred to my employer before I write it.  Yet it is still relevant to my work; I get commission on smartphone app sales, and my employer’s income is my job security.  Granted, my works, being compiled to binary and mostly locked away on iDevices, are less accessible to customers than print media or professional blogging.  Regardless, how important is copyright to society?

Richard M. Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, is a prominent figure within my primary special interest group.  However, I lean more toward the Open Source side of the fence, don’t observe all the pedantry (RMS, chill out about GNU being used in all Linux distributions), and prefer the Republican or Libertarian party to his Green.  Yet I have long respected his opinion on copyright and patents as they apply to software, and as a result I’m surely more receptive of his other opinions, which are numerous.  I’m also a sucker for the American Constitution, and libertarian trimming of institutions both government and corporate.

So it’s not surprising that I would prescribe his opinion on copyright law with no salt.  As that page explains, copyright as it is currently implemented is vastly bloated compared to the constitutional intention, and unjustified by constitutional standards.  I welcome objections to his argument, but if you simply don’t agree with honoring the Constitution then we have nothing to discuss.  But this post will address the crux of the “anti-piracy” argument: that livelihoods are threatened by copyright infringement.

(To reiterate Stallman’s point: I will go out of my way to avoid calling it as piracy or theft, or the work as intellectual property.  I don’t agree with copyright infringement, but a copyright is an expression-monopoly.  The expression is not property in any meaningful way; it cannot be damaged or stolen.  Its market value can certainly be lowered, but that is competition rather than theft.  A copyright is a monopoly on an expression, granted by the government for the public’s benefit.)

I won’t address the corporate-interest angle (CEO versus grunt) or the flawed implementation of SOPA/PIPA.  (The OPEN Act may not be all that great either.)  My focus is on the equity of the trade Mr. Stallman explained.  He suggested shortening the very long longevity which copyright currently enjoys, from [artist’s death] + 70 years (approximately 1.5 to 2 lifetimes, for works produced by younger artists) to 10 years or less, depending on the industry.

Mr. Stallman’s focus was on getting the most new works for the least public liberty – maximum efficiency, not simply maximum output.  Does anyone disagree with his guesstimates?  Specifically, I wonder how much we should be concerned whether copyright can sustain someone’s entire living income.  Perhaps it would be better for society if some arts were only viable as side jobs or hobbies.  Would the decreases of input and output be equitable?

Redistribution and modification of copyrighted works are the two freedoms spent.  Firstly, the widespread infringement targeted by the bills represents a deficit of those works which are being infringed.  Copyright is, in my unprofessional opinion, only suitable for reigning in sparse edge cases, not reversing an entire culture of habitual infringement.  If artists’ funds are being restricted it is the responsibility of executives (or a surplus of artists).  Copyright is far too strong, and forbids access to far more works than are encouraged by its most recent expansions.

The primary argument for “anti-piracy” legislation is that we should preserve copyright because otherwise the artists won’t be able to support themselves.  I’m sure the artists would find ways to support themselves, although they might produce less art or even cease to be artists.  I do not believe a reduction of copyright would starve these artists; this is not an issue of human rights.  At worst, it would require them to switch industries.  I say this not to be cold-hearted, but because I think this point deserves attention after such a long period of widespread neglect culminating in our current crisis.