RE: Information & Power /Copyrights

Billy Brown (
Tue, 4 May 1999 16:15:47 -0500

Lee Daniel Crocker wrote:
>No one can claim your work as theirs, ever, even without copyright--
>that's simple fraud.

In theory, perhaps. In practice, there isn't anything you can do about it unless you also have copyright protection. This is because you can only sue over a fraud that causes monetary damage of some kind - and if your work is not protected by copyright, you can't possibly prove such harm.

> Copyright is not
> what prevents me from claiming I wrote your poem; it prevents me from
> posting it on my site with the note "Here's a poem I like by Gina
> Miller...".

If I post someone's work as my own, we have the case mentioned above. If I publish it with no attribution at all, the only law I have violated is the copyright.

> I am an author and programmer; I earn my living writing things, most
> of which are copyrighted by my employer. I am thoroughly convinced
> that in a world without copyrights I would earn twice as much money
> as I do now and produce better work, because my storehouse of
> information to draw upon would be freer, and the demand would increase
> for creative work that was timely and original. Artists who cling
> to copyrights like a security blanket deserve my "demeaning", and I
> make no apology for it.

I'm not a big fan of current copyright law, but I think you've gone off the deep end here. Time for a litte perspective:

First, allow me to point out that a programmer is in a completely different situation that a novelist, an artist, or a film producer. We programmers are in the business of building complex machines that do things for our customers. It just so happens that the machines we make cost essentially nothing to duplicate, but that doesn't mean people can just run off their own copies with complete impunity. Even in the absence of copyright law many people will voluntarily pay for a program, for the simple reason that they want you to support it. They want tech support, bug fixes, version upgrades, and all the other fringe benifits that come from being an actual customer of the software's authors.

Thus, software authors can survive and profit even in the absence of copyright enforcement. We can see good examples of this today in the case of the organizations that are making money selling copies of Linux - the OS is actually free, but many people will buy it anyway so that they can get the support they need.

For writers, musicians, and other such content creators, the situation is completely different. Once produced, their works are completely static bodies of information. You don't have to worry about version 2.0, or bug fixes, or compatability with other products, or any other such support issues. Consequently, there is no particular reason why anyone would ever need to bother with paying the author. Abolishing copyright would completely destroy the monetary value of such works, leaving their authors with no means of getting paid.

Value would then rest solely in the ability to deliver products to customers, which means the distributors and/or manufacturers would take over. Since any new offering would be immediately copied by a distributor's competitors, the incentives to create new material would be rather limited. At best, content creators would all end up working low-paying jobs for various distribution companies. Many types of content creation would probably vanish completely - it would be very difficult to profit from anything with significant production costs in such an environment.

In view of this, I would suggest a much more limited revision of current practice:

  1. Copyright should only prevent commercial duplication and resale of a copyrighted work. Any sort of duplication and re-use that does not involve money changing hands should be legal. This step removes almost all of the usual reasons for objecting to copyright law, and the only authors it is likely to hurt are those who demand inflated prices for their works.
  2. Software should be recognized as a new intellectual field, in which neither patents nor copyrights make any sense. I'm not sure what the best arrangement here would be, but the arguments have absolutely nothing to do with the debate over traditional intellectual property.

Billy Brown, MCSE+I