Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 549, December 20, 2009

"The United Nations must be destroyed."

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The Issue of Copyright
by Curt Howland

The Libertarian Enterprise

In the Dec. 13th, 2009, issue, Daniel Jennings discusses how publishing is changing by noting that electronic formats and print-on-demand have finally reached the "mainstream".

This brings to mind that we, as in society in general, are going to have to deal with copyright.

In long, sometimes very hostile, discussions, it has become clear to me that the government "Letters Patent" monopoly grants have infected the thinking of many people, maybe most, as deeply if not more so than the ever popular issue of "roads".

One proponent of copyright in such a discussion was all for downloading music online until, in trying to support copyright against my position of repeal, she suddenly realized that she was breaking the law she was arguing for. Rather than turn toward repeal, she instead ignored every argument she had made in favor of this minor freedom, and ceased talking about downloading at all. Her last comment to me to date is, "you're insane and so are your ideas."

Even though some of these discussions have occurred in forums dedicated to Linux and other Free and Open Source Software, where many developers are paid for what they do even though they give away the software that they write, the idea of being paid for creation, rather than copies, is something that the prohibitionists cannot grasp.

Yes, prohibition. The peaceful copying of something which belongs to me is illegal, because someone else claims legal ownership of an idea or pattern that they have previously sold or given away.

The idea of intellectual property, that copying and idea/pattern is theft, is why the discussions do not remain polite. The supporter's reaction is emotional the same way it would be emotional if I were trying to get people to agree to me taking their car, or the food from their refrigerator, without "paying for it".

What's strange is that these people aren't themselves earning money through royalties or residuals or whatever the words are. Yet, like "roads", they freak out at the idea that something they are accustomed to that relies upon government for its existence at the present time might possibly cease to exist as they know it.

Thomas Jefferson was so right. All experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Now why is it fine for me to copy that here, but if it were written more recently would require the legal twisted logic of "fair use" for me to be allowed to do so? Because copyright requires loopholes, twists and turns in order to make it even marginally workable.

And let me repeat, the most acerbic of these discussions have been in forums dedicated to things people give away!

The rationalization for the establishment of copyright and patent, just one obvious example of merchantilism enumerated in that statist rag, the "Constitution for the United States", was to ensure a vigorous public domain by requiring ideas to be placed into the Library of Congress or the Patent Office in order to be granted legal monopoly status. Then, after being secured "for a limited time", those ideas would be available to anyone and everyone to copy and build upon.

There is a glaring problem, though: This rewards not creation, but laziness. A real "better idea" need only be come up with once or twice in order to secure a lifetime of royalties. With the changes to to the laws in the latter half of the 20th century, one "better idea", such as a cartoon character drawn quickly of only three conjoined circles, can mean several lifetimes of "protection" for one mickey-mouse idea.

I think creation is best rewarded at the time of creation. Inventors, rewarded most highly by being first to market, establishing a reputation for quality, for being "The Real McCoy." But sitting on one's laurels cannot succeed without artificial support. The creator must continually innovate, just like any other business without a monopoly grant that prevents competition.

"We" react negatively to monopolies in business, in particular regions or services. "We" know that such a monopoly grant reduces innovation, stifles competition and generally supports inefficient firms that provide substandard services that people wouldn't otherwise pay for. It doesn't take much effort to realize that the monopoly grants of copyright/patent are no different in their effects.

So what about the creators? How to support inventors, musicians and authors? To tell the truth, I have no easy answer. I don't think there is any answer that will maintain "monopoly profits" to these creators and producers that isn't just more of what we have now.

In my life the jobs I've had have been direct service or creating answers for people to solve their particular needs. I've never had a use for copyright or patent, because I was paid to solve problems now. The market benefits of a human voice, rather than a voicemail-hell decision tree, are very well known. People who want to get to their data are not going to wait for me to file a patent on the technique for getting them reconnected before I implement it.

One manufacturer I worked for made their excellent profits by being able to produce a plastic to customer specifications faster than anyone else on the planet. During the year it took for the competition to copy the properties of the material (and supply it cheaper) the company was able to charge "monopoly prices" for their product because they were, without any recourse to legalities, the only place it could be bought. Humans have very strong time preferences.

The best are in demand because they are the best. Photography did not prevent Picasso and Warhol from earning a living as painters, TV hasn't put theaters out of business. Recorded music has not meant the death of live performances of every size or venue, or symphonies even though several of those exist only because of their involuntary patronage by taxpayers.

Horse-drawn carriages still are made and sold, as are those hapless foils of change, buggy-whips. Those producers found their niche, albeit a small one.

Nothing can replace or replicate, yet, personal service or live performance. Quality reproductions cost more than shoddy, and that is reflected in what people pay for personal service, live performances and quality recordings/prints.

Ok, back on track. Mr. Jennings (remember Mr. Jennings? Scroll back if not) brings up digital publishing, direct to the computer. Copying digital content is just too easy to believe that authors are going to be protected by DRM or copyright. Personally, I won't buy a "book" with DRM even though I have no intention to give it away, any more than I would buy a paper book with a lock on it that checks my identity before it will allow me to open it.

Carl Bussjaeger, after writing his seriously excellent novel Net Assets, sold electronic copies. Then someone made it widely available "online" and, as he puts it, "didn't even have the decency to include a link for voluntary donations."

There was a PDF of photographs of Rawlings' The Deathly Hallows soon after publication; searching for L. Neil Smith online found an electronic version of Forge of the Elders floating around.

Those who uploaded Net Assets, Forge of the Elders and The Deathly Hallows must have the freedom to do what they want with the bits on their own computer or the very concept of "private property" does not exist.

The Patron Author of The Libertarian Enterprise has put his novel Ceres online, one chapter at a time, and I dearly hope that the ad-clicks are sufficient for him to continue doing so. If Mr. Bussjeager had written Net Assets today, maybe that would have worked for him as well. We have the examples of Charles Dickens and numerous authors since who have serialized their works for magazines, being paid for their creation by being the "first to market", in exactly the same way that Big Head Press and other online comics are doing with their various works.

This is one idea for authors that I see working, today, without their first taking recourse to the monopoly grant of copyright. I'm certain that there are more different and interesting answers that people will come up with. And if it turns out that musicians, authors and inventors cannot do their thing full time without those monopoly profits, then the old phrase of "don't quit your day job" comes to mind.

...and please, don't forget to drop a nickel in the jar.


Daniel Jennings, The Publishing Revolution

Carl Bussjeager, Net Assets

L. Neil Smith, Ceres

Big Head Press

Boldrin and Levine, Against Intellectual Monopoly


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