Barger for US Senate

Official campaign website of Al Barger, 2004 Indiana Libertarian Party candidate for US Senate

"It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man who knows that the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?" - James Madison, Federalist #62

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Copyright law as corporate welfare

American copyright law is MILES out of whack. The entertainment corporations have taken over the law so completely as to not just have copyrights effectively in perpetuity, but to expand the privileges of copyright so much as to effectively destroy any concept of fair use.

Copyrights are restrictions on everyone else's freedom in thousands of ways in the name of ONE person or company. Information wants to be free. It's natural that it flows and mingles and gets put back and forward in different forms.

How many truly ORIGINAL thoughts do YOU get? Most human knowledge comes built and expanded from pieces of the old. I have my own minor additions to thoughts on copyright laws, and my own writing style, but I, Al Barger, did not conjure up most of the underlying ideas or even examples in this very essay just out of the blue. I've picked them up from a hundred different books, web columns, tv shows and conversations. Am I doing something bad, or violating the "intellectual property" of others?

European classical composers, for example, would take a bit of some folk song and spin off in a different direction to create something new. A songwriter today quotes a line out of a 70 year old song though, and he's asking to get sued for a million dollars.

It's normal creative practice to take a theme or character or situation from Shakespeare, and with some new creative input it becomes West Side Story -- and thousands of others.

The entertainment corporations sway public opinion by appeals to "intellectual property rights." It's THEIR property, and people are just trying to "steal" it. We have to respect people's property rights.

People are being fooled by a bit of bogus verbal hocus pocus, though. It's COPYright, not PROPERTY right. Calling them "property rights" is merely a metaphor, a verbal sleight of hand, not a reflection of any coporeal reality. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS INTELECTUAL PROPERTY. When I go on P2P and download some Elvis Costello song, I haven't TAKEN anything. Go back to the warehouse at Sam Goody's and count your inventory- it's all there.

Lengthy and restrictive copyright law hurts individuals and the whole of society in thousands of ways, big and small. It's not just kids downloading Britney Spears, but writers and creators and businesses.

Old movies that should be available cheap as public domain are not available at all. Disney and other studios have cut out things that they think will hurt their corporate image. Try finding a copy of Song of the South, or the Popeye cartoon "You're a Sap, Mr Jap." These should be part of the public record.

Moreover, record companys with their government granted copyright privileges charge cartel prices. They want $15 for a 20 cent CD of a 40 year old record. You get to pay $20 for a 50 cent DVD of a 60 year old movie- if it's available at all.

All of this amounts to censorship and corporate welfare. You're pushing your luck to dare to parody Mickey Mouse, or to use this classic character of our collective history in a new creative context.

But the corporate greedheads aren't satisfied with their de facto permanent copyrights -- they want their Washington hacks to basically outlaw anything that could possibly be used to make copies of anything copyrighted, apparently including VCRs. The senate, and the devil's errand boy Orrin Hatch, are preparing an ugly sounding little piece of work called the Induce Act. As a senator, I would be strongly opposed to any bill vaguely resembling this description.

With stuff like this, the greedheads not only want eternal copyrights, but also a ban on any technology (hardware OR software) that exists or might be dreamt up in the future that could be used to undermine their cartel monopoly privileges. They might as well put Sony execs in jail for making the cameras used to film Al Qaeda videos.

It would be better to do away with copyrights altogether. It would open up people's creative options, and make much more stuff available much cheaper for consumers.

The problem is, of course, incentivizing creativity. If you write a book, and everyone else can just start making copies to sell same as you, then why bother? Creators need a chance to make a buck for their efforts.

Thus was written into the US Constitution this explanation and authority in Section 8 -- the only legal authority in the US for creating copyright laws: "Clause 8: 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"

In the early days of the republic, copyrights lasted 14 years, and they could be renewed for another 14, making a total of 28 years. This still seems MORE than fair. It's generally considered that most copyrighted material makes 80-90% of its money in the first two years or less. It seems likely that this couple of years is the incentive for the writing, not what this song might be making 50 years from now.

Also, if 25 or 30 years of copyright does not strike a creative type as fair or sufficient, I would suggest that they drive a truck or wait tables for a living instead.

That's because these perpetual and constantly expanding copyrights absolutely and manifestly do NOT "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts." They absolutely hinder it, by restricting EVERYONE'S freedom in the name of speech, of the press, of commerce, of creative expansion and expression.

Indeed, the heavyhanded copyright laws now sound unconstitutional to me, MUCH less some nonsense Induce Act. I tend to be skeptical of judicial activism, so I might go lightly on this point. However, I fail to see how 75 years after the death of the author, and the promise of further decades of extensions long before that constitute "limited times."

In short, then, 20 or 30 years should be the maximum of copyright protection. Further, I would presume that this means mostly just a monopoly in the commercial exploitation of a work. Common non-commerical P2P swapping of mp3 files, for example, should arguably be protected fair use -- though there's room to negotiate the legitimate concerns created by these emerging technologies.

However, I can understand why copyright holders might be legitimately concerned about some of this, though it has not demonstrably hurt them so far, despite how badly they've played these technologies. Considering this, and also THEIR presumed freedom, it's fair enough that they would try to CREATE Digital Rights Management technologies (DRM), such as the copy protections put into commercial DVDs.

As a consumer, I tend to be highly skeptical of these things, but then I have the right not to buy them. Done right though, such things as DRM or the empty decoy mp3 files the industry pushes into the P2P networks might at least slow down the wholesale copying of new material. Or it might just anger consumers. At least these things constitute, as it were, fair fighting -- as opposed to getting Congress to force people to pay them tribute under threat of arrest and ruination.

By rights, the Beatles and Ayn Rand and James Joyce and Charlie Chaplin should all long since be public domain. Eleanor Rigby and Father Mackenzie and Mickey should all be getting re-invented in hundreds of permutations in movies and short stories and songs, much as are Tom Sawyer and Hamlet and Moses. That's liberty, and that's certainly the greater public good.


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