Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Copy Rights and Wrongs


The Google Books Settlement Agreement and the conflicts that caused it touched on only some of the problems of intellectual property and rights to it.  The settlement was rejected by US Appeals Court Judge Denny Chin (summary here from Columbia U's Copyright Project and full text PDF of ruling from The Public Index).

Much is wrong with all of the argumentation from all parties.  The simplest fact is that Google provided a service to store library books and make them available to patrons via Inter Library Loan.  At root, it is no different than a climate-controlled building for storage, library cards for access, and padded envelopes for mailing - with one exception: the process creates another copy ...  many other copies... as many copies as anyone could want.  In fact, I made two copies of Judge Chin's ruling and put them in different directories, one in the "NecessaryFacts" directory for these posts; and the other under "CJ Others" for any future academic criminal justice discussion of copyright laws and violations. 

Michael Crichton was not alone in seeing this coming.  Back in 1983, in his book Electronic Life, he said that the inherent copyablity of electronic media removes it from all of our previous expectations of property.  He recommended that artists forego the concept of royalties.  Just get your money up front and move on to the next project.  While he did have a lot of those projects, I do not doubt that he cashed the royalty checks all along the way for each of them.  Back then, I cited Crichton's thesis in articles that I wrote touting a world of "softlife" reproducing itself without copyrights.  Of course, when Defense Computing magazine took an article that I wrote about Soviet computer technology, claiming that the lack of a copyright statement made it anyone's property, I called them up and talked them out of a hundred bucks.  Self-interest and hypocrisy can be so hard to tell apart.

So, too, with this problem.

Among the facets are so-called "orphan works" for which the copyright holder is lost, perhaps dead, generally hard to find in any event.  If not for Google, they would remain orphans.  Now that they are rescued, reproduced, archived, indexed, and available to the world, they have new value.  When the authors themselves are not clamoring for cash - a rare event or these would not be orphan works - then non-self-interested others hypocritically want someone else (anyone else not making a profit- but not they themselves investing their own resources) to do this for free, track down the authors, and force an arbitrarily fair amount of money on them. 

I find works of mine out on the Internet and usually I do not care, as long as the presentation looks nice and serves a moral purpose.  I already got paid what I asked for.  (There is a parable in the New Testament about that. See Matthew 20:2.)  Once - as in the case of Defense Computing - I found the Frances Lehman-Loeb Art Center of Vassar College presenting an article that I wrote on the definition of "coin."  I pointed out the plagiarism and offered to write them a new one at a fair price.  They took the page down and never replied to my offer.  (The offender was an undergraduate history major volunteering at the museum.) 

An artifact speaks of its maker.  Artifacts are semata: bearers of meaning.  Thus, you can attach property - without "mixing your labor" - simply by putting your sign to it.  That, in fact, is the basis not only for marking cattle, but, in our time, for creating money, even Federal Reserve Notes, which have no intrinsic value but have value entirely through meaning (symbol).

Symbols are not objective.  They depend on cultural context.  When the culture changes, the meanings change.  We no longer live in a time when the production of books is a barrier to the transmission of ideas.  Books always were sold for the printing, the paper, the binding, and not for the value of the ideas inside.  Evangelists give away the Word of God.  Even the Ayn Rand Institute gives away Atlas Shrugged to high schoolers who enter their essay contests.

Among the tangled roots is the fact that we get our ideas of property from a long history with land.  Exclusivity is based on a physical law: two objects cannot be in the same place at the same time.  Rivalry is based on the fact that the same object cannot be in two places at the same time.  But now they can.  Unlike a plot of land, two people can access the same copy of a work of art at the same time without being in the same place. To each, their view is personal and private.  Even only a few years ago, cassette tape machines had two different functions for PLAY and RECORD. Now they are the same function. 

The physics and metaphysics of land do not apply to cyberspace.  The court should have removed itself as lacking competent jurisdiction.  The institution best suited to bringing spontaeous order is the market.  The libraries owned the books.  Google owned the means of preserving them while maintaining public access. 

When these books were printed, our technologies were not contemplated.  It should remain there.  Times change. 

 Copyrights were invented as monopolies in 17th century England.  The first law was passed in 1709 (Queen Anne's Law of 1710).  Sooner or later, implants or something will give us all personal permanent memory.  Where will the law be then?  You will never forget a book you read and you will be able to recite it perfectly.  Musical performances and plays may also become self-replicating memes.  Sculpture will probably prove resistant to copying, though we do have 3D Modeling now. 

1 comment:

  1. We have had 3D printers for some time now. I would imagine that in the future it will be possible to easily copy physical objects.

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