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Feature: Whatever Will Be Will Be Free on the Internet

last modified 2006-02-22 03:47 PM

The intersection between Free Software, the Internet and copyright issues.

An impressively clear explanation of a complex topic:

    The Net's free-range design, combined with the 
    global proliferation of personal computing and 
    low-cost communications networks, laid the 
    foundation for the surge of innovation and new uses 
    that became so evident by the late 1990's...

    It was inevitable, then, that the Internet would 
    eventually force a radical rethinking of 
    intellectual property rights, and the music 
    industry's current travails represent a 
    particularly dramatic example of the mutating rules 
    — though not the only one. Consider, for example,    
    the rise of so-called open-source software...

    That concept of open-source is inseparable from the 
    Internet, because it provides the vehicle for free 
    exchange and widespread distribution — the same 
    idea that is at the heart of file sharing and one 
    that is spreading well beyond the techies.

It is interesting that the word "stealing" and "theft" are bandied about quite a bit when discussing this topic. Yet very few of these discussions go to the ethical and legal core of copyrights.

We all proclaim that freedom is a core value in our society. We also argue that free markets are an important element to maintain this freedom. But a true free market is one where there are no barriers to access to the market in the exchange of goods, services and information. Copyright, as a type of monopolistic barrier, is the very opposite of a free market mechanism. On the face of it, copyrights should never be permitted in a free society.

The U.S. Constitution, in permitting copyrights, also explains why this restriction on freedom is necessary. The Constitution gives the Congress the right to pass laws:

     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 other words, Congress can grant creators a monopoly on the use of their works for a limited time, in order to give them an incentive to create. Note the justification: to give creators an incentive to create. Note the time period: limited.

In a failure to connect the dots, the NY Times article cited here, does not make the connection to another article in the very same issue which says the following:

    Much of the stated concern over file sharing has 
    centered on the revenue that record companies and 
    musicians are losing, but few musicians ever 
    actually receive royalties from their record sales 
    on major labels, which managers say have accounting 
    practices that are badly in need of review. 
    (Artists do not receive royalties for a CD until 
    the record company has earned back the money it has 
    spent on them.)

    Even the Backstreet Boys, one of the best-selling 
    acts of the 1990's, did not appear to have received 
    any CD royalties, their management said.

    "I don't have sympathy for the record companies," 
    said Mickey Melchiondo of the rock duo Ween. "They 
    haven't been paying me royalties anyway."

In other words, copyright laws are not being used to provide incentives for creators, who are not benefitting from all the money the music companies make on selling their art. No where in the Constitution does it guarantee that music company executives are entitled to make enough money to maintain their bad habits. Nor does it guarantee Bill Gates the right to be richer beyond any Emperor of old. But this is exactly what is happening. The copyright laws are being used as a true monopolistic mechanism, to enrich a small number of corporate executives and the corrupt congressional representatives who are helping them.

As for limiting this monopoly, as the Consitution requires, the DMCA makes a poor joke out of that word by extending the copyright limit almost forever, by imposing draconian fines and criminal punishment for violating this law. As icing on the cake, a third article on this topic points out:

    ...people who win copyright suits are also entitled  
    to have their legal fees paid by the losing side, 
    which is unusual in American law.

Anyone who understands the underlying issues can see clearly that it is not the file-sharing 12 year-olds who are the real thieves here.

For more in-depth articles on the philosophical and political issues behind this topic, visit this site and go to the Free Software Foundation.

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