Saturday, July 4, 2009

Copyright Abolition

Hello friends, I am sorry that I haven't written in my blog much recently. It seems like I only post here when I have a new machinema to publish, or when I get an email from Google that gets me riled up about consumer rights online.

In a previous post, I made my stand clear regarding online privacy. Today I would like to talk about my feelings regarding Copyright, which are probably even more unusual and surprising.

I am a pirate. I download songs, software, movies and TV shows without paying money for the privilege. Virtually everyone I know that knows how to even remotely use a computer commits some form of piracy or another on a regular basis, but they normally qualify it with strange conditions such as "I only download content that is hard to find to purchase legally", or "I only download material I've already paid for legally", or "shaddap I don't want to talk about it right now."

I have always been mystified by this ethical double standard so many practice, and until recently I shared in it. Essentially, I did not understand what copyright law should look like, but I did feel strongly that if someone online had material they chose to share with me (being an anonymous neighbor on the nets) that any law preventing this based upon the material itself is a form of censorship and I didn't get too broken up over resisting that.

Sometime over the last year, I have however been able to solidify my position. I've come to back a political ideology which would leave copyright law quite simple indeed, on account of it being entirely absent.

I have come to the conclusion that the best legal framework for society to grow and innovate in is one where copyright law simply does not exist. Period. No copyright. None. Ever. Finito.

At first glance, you would think that is a common conclusion that a pirate would come to, given that pirates are best known for logging onto bittorrent and gnutella based services to download every kind of media which exists as soon as it is released. But once you start plumbing people's political opinions in popular online dialogues, the picture starts looking very different indeed.

Apparently, most internet users seem more interested in Copyright Reform, most popularly (though I cannot find a mid-page link to a quote, tellingly enough) reducing the copyright term
limit to roughly 14 years and making it easier for consumers to legally make more use of their purchases. However, since I personally estimate that more than half of online copyright infringement involves material less than 14 years old (put another way, newer than the world wide web?) most of these people are gunning for a law that they would still be breaking once it's ratified.

I on the other hand, and the few people I know of who agree with me, submit that copyright law is simply harmful on a large scale. Put in the barest terms, creation of work should not entitle any person to interfere in every transaction that third parties engage in all around the world merely to artificially inflate the value of the work. Unhindered communication is magnitudes more valuable to the global community than the ability to profit from reselling infinitely copyable non-commodities.

I have made my point a number of different ways in the past, normally in rebuttal in online forums, but I found myself writing an email to a friend today and a couple of hours later I had completed another illustration which details my feelings on the matter quite well. So, I decided to post it here instead.

I imagine a world like ours in most respects, I will call it Lacuna. For the simplicity of this illustrations, the Lacunans speak English.

There is a custom that Lacuna artists can invent new words. So long as the word they invent follows certain phonetic rules, and so long as nobody claims prior use of the word, they can call it their own and then charge others for the convoluted right of being able to use the word in discussion. The definition is set by the author, but much like the "meaning" of any art it is really more decided by the consumers and the artist stays ahead of this evolution taking credit for meaning it that way all along.

There is glamorous public interest in Lacuna for these new, forbidden words. They do little to forward actual communication since so few people are really familiar with them, but speakers of them have status. They sound important because they utter words they had to burn money to obtain license to. Soon, commoners who hear these words spoken often enough figure out how to pronounce and write them, and some begin doing so.

Oh no! The market value of these new "works of art" are being threatened by counterfeiters! Customer demand in words that have been sullied by common tongues drops. So the industry does the only thing it can do in it's own reasonable self-interest. It either lobbies for new laws or perverts existing laws to levy ever greater punishments against those who speak these hallowed words in public.

Soon, commoners know to be careful not to say such forbidden things where they might be heard. Still, when alone and out of earshot of the aristocracy they vie for status among one another by demonstrating working knowledge of the forbidden art. This leaves commoners less impressed by aristocrats who use the words which commoner's have "cracked", dropping aristocratic demand for "cracked" words, and leading to still more invasive prosecution attempts against commoners including monitoring all private communication, rewarding individuals who report speech violations and even posing as commoners to try to catch them in the act.

All the while, new "hallowed" words are created which hew closer and closer in pronunciation and/or spelling to actual words of the original English language. If commoner's using hallowed words devalue them commercially, then surely the coined usage of hallowed words devalue the communicational power of English words, do they not? One notable wordsmith, Dalt Wisney, goes so far as to craft new commercial words which sound very similar to some of the first words Lacunans use in the English Language growing up. Whether he had planned to or not, over the next two generations he derailed the aristocracy into using his words exclusively in favor of their plain English counterparts, and guaranteed that they would pay him (and his successors) for the privilege to do so indefinitely. As time wore on, the original English vocabulary sounded crass and unpolished to aristocratic ears, and the commoners who invoked such vulgar language were shunned and ridiculed.

A time came where virtually none of the English language still had coin in this world. You can try to speak it, but noone will understand you because even most commoners work their fingers to the bone for the very privilege of communicating to their employers with alien, hallowed vocabularies. Some groups of people still try to band together, keeping the English language alive amongst themselves and abiding by what they interpret the law to require all at the same time, but it takes only a cease and desist letter or court order to quash such attempts since none of the participants can afford the bureaucracy of defending their freedoms in court.

Then a day comes when a prosecutorial equilibrium is reached. The peasants are so far subjugated they cannot recall what freedom is like (Stockholm Syndrome). They still communicate, but only by working hard to pay for what small vocabularies they have. None wish to rock the boat and anger the aristocrats — who give them language so reasonably — by speaking out of turn, so the world persists in a sort of Nash Equilibrium. No utility or true societal benefit stems from the subversion to natural language, and much suffering is evident: but not visible from within this society, nor can any party see any individual action they could take which would better their lot.

The day the wireless telegraph is invented in Lacuna, nobody saw it's potential to shift the balance of power in a battle everyone thought was over long ago. It opens a new avenue of communication between people. Between businesses, between aristocrats, and even difficult-to-monitor communication between far-flung commoners.

So, commoners begin learning Morse code and tapping at one another. Early models of the machine support abysmally low bit rates, so to begin with you can only get simple, 10-100 kilobyte hallowed words across at a time. Most commoners use this device for major announcements, such as the hallowed equivalents of "Baby!" or "Marry?" or "Won!" hoping that shared context will help to complete the communication. There is nowhere near enough capacity to reliably communicate truly lucrative hallowed words.

Soon enough, bitrates begin increasing. The thresholds by which long words can be transmitted are passed long before the sluggish aristocracy is prepared for the ramifications. Now, geographically distant commoners who have paid for disjoint vocabulary sets begin sharing one another's words so that they can understand each other. Each time they do habit causes them to glance over their shoulder, but they find that nobody is there to reprove them. This mode of communication is technologically fairly private, but the privacy people experience is practicably perfect due to lack of repressive interest in what they have to say.

Commoners find that their communicational effectiveness increases somewhat as they learn inexpensive words used heavily elsewhere, as they are used lightly where they live too. So that's what this commoner's boss has been saying behind his back all this time? Oh, this other commoner can now understand parts of news reports that were not initially meant to be perceived by poor people. The list goes on.

As small pockets of commoners begin to see the value of sharing these words illegally — and the capacity to get away with it in this new communications medium — some band together ahead of the curve of public awareness to create a clearinghouse that they call "Vocabster", where people are free to advertise what words they know and browsers can elect to learn whatsoever words they please. Soon, the users of this service command a powerful communicative arsenal.

It takes some time for the aristocracy to respond to the equalizing effect of this informational weather system which is damaging their hegemony. They know they cannot admit it's existence without drawing public attention to it and potentially worsening the problem. The story does break however with a single, wealthy, disgruntled wordsmith throwing a brick at the very segment of the population who are interested in the words he invents. Later it will be made clear that he owns no right in these words either, he has sold them to his publishing house in exchange for enhanced noteriety. One day he will publicly admit to logging on to such a clearing house to be taught how to use a word which he invented, but later forgot the details of. He states that he was not too cheap, but simply too busy to engage in the growing bureaucracy required to re-purchase his word.

Vocabster is threatened with court orders, and it resists all threats publicly, improving it's notability every time. Eventually it is taken to court, and thereafter "purchased" into oblivion, but not before other clearing houses with even more advanced technology take it's place.

Next, the aristocracy begins threatening individual commoners with jailtime for participating in these clearinghouses. This is perhaps a century removed from the early attempts at vocabularital freedom, so the public is simply not prepared for the hard demands made by the aristocracy in these cases nor are the aristocracy properly prepared to wage so many small battles simultaneously. While they try many people who have gone so far as to profit from their counter-establishment activities, all of the PR focuses on the 7 year olds, grandmothers and poor college students who are drug into court instead. Guilty or not of the sharing they are accused of, they hew as far from the picture of a hardened criminal as the public can understand. This helps illuminate how much power the commoners have achieved, how little the establishment still holds, and helps to make it clear how little the Lacunan aristocracy values the lives of individual commoners when they cannot be fleeced properly.

Another popular place online in this world is a bulletin board called Wordtube, where people can share short messages with one another. Up and coming word smiths use this place to craft and share their own words, determining their popularity and cutting their teeth. Some people share commercial words here unaltered, and when enough attention is drawn the Wordtube administration takes these down. What few expected are how many wordsmiths might create portmanteaus of commercial words to communicate their own point, and then use the power of this bulletin board to disseminate their hybrid creations. Instead of vetting the research to make sure no similar hallowed word exists, and finding out what complicated pronunciations flow easily off the tongue, and hiring a lawyer to back their property claim: they borrow parts from a pool of words which are proven to work for their audience and remix their own efforts from there. Unfortunately, this practice is also illegal and many ameture wordsmiths have their work summarily removed by Wordtube and related "legal" sharing services, unless the individual feels so fervently about their work that they can afford to go to court over the matter.

While they don't realize it, hybridisation is precisely how language evolved in Lacuna before it became commercialized, and sharing is exactly how it propagated. In Lacuna it was once believed that the common person understanding a word or finding utility for it was so much more valuable than prostrating yourself before it's coiner that everyone used words with roots hundreds or even thousands of years old, and noone remembered who first coined any of them. A man could simply open his mouth and speak his peace without first signing himself into bondage for a vocabulary portfolio.

But now the battle is engaged once more. The liberal commoners are empowered by a curiously difficult to censor communications network. The aristocrats on the other hand are positively giddy. Not because of the capability they may have to profit with their old, corrupt business model over this network if they can ever re-master control, why think so small? But because now they can paint themselves as victims to try to exact power over the very network itself, and the ability to censor non-vocabulary related material when doing so leads to their profit. The aristocrats leverage the attitudes of the commoners which they have brainwashed. Commoners who have invested in the old model, and feel as though their investments and hard work would be nullified, putting them at a disadvantage should the free-language advocates win. Commoners dreaming of the beautiful new million-dollar words coming out this summer which they can purchase a right to hear if the liberals simply do not piss off the establishment too much. Commoners with dollar signs in their eyes, imagining the earnings they could make by creating and profiting from their own words.. not realizing their artful creations would simply be purchased by aristocratic organizations and the artist simply signed into bondage like the golden goose, or relegated to obscurity if they do not agree to the establishment's terms.

Such unfortunate souls worry that if liberals had their way, there would be no incentive for people to invent new words! Who would spend millions researching long, complicated utterances when they will not make return on investment? There is so much risk involved you see, since your word may prove unpopular, and you won't know until after you've already committed your investment. Everyone would get tired of the words we currently use to one up one another, and then all speech would grind to a halt! Apparently, we would drown in our own liberty. They call a liberal who merely sits at home, learning whatever words he chooses easily over the telegram "greedy", adding the hallowed equivalents of other choice inferences such as "unprincipalled, fat, slob". It is claimed that the liberals rock the boat simply to one-up hard working citizens with their ill-gotten vocabulary, and any claims to natural right over language are scoffed at.

Thus, the 3-part opera occurring in the real world we live in can be illustrated using slightly different terms, to help illuminate to the layperson the depth and breadth of how natural rights are perverted by our global content production industries into a new, innocent-seeming status quo. Most people cannot imagine the power of an interconnected network like this world's Internet, they see it only as a means to purchase and obtain canned content and perhaps to pass short emails to one another. However we can cooperate with each other instead if we choose. We can participate in the creation of content, we can be both producer and consumer. It's not an activity everyone would feel comfortable investing themselves in overnight, but if it becomes a fad and enough of your friends and family participate you know that one day you will too. However, such processes cannot get off the ground so long as creating, sharing, and echoing content are forbidden by powerful people and company's with no interest in anything but monetizing whatever content is in their control. You cannot share their content without being sued or cut from communities such as Youtube over threats of suit. You cannot make your own creations based upon their content or anything conspicuously similar for the same reason, you cannot even make fully original content which competes with theirs or which they would have any reason whatsoever to object to because court threats function as a form of censorship. Unless your content makes so much bank for you that you can afford to meet your accusers in court, you are simply gagged by process, while in the meantime access to all meaningful art in our culture is traded and groomed by profiteers. Notice I said "meaningful" art, not "good" art. The Lacunans in my parable found that the versitile, natural English language lost all import once the publicly vaunted, though inferior hallowed language came into coin. This is the crisis we face in our culture as well, as fewer people consume old media and we are alienated from any cultural reference that is not covered by copyright.

I hope this long post has made sense to some people (though I am certain zero people would read it through, even if six billion were given a chance ;3) now I'll go try and see some fireworks with the family.


Barney Lerten said...

Fascinating, Jesse. You did all in your power to avoid an analogic breakdown, and I think you've succeeded.
I just wonder if the only answer is to throw out the law - because you and I know the odds of that are those of someone reading all of your piece and getting a 40-question exam on it perfect;-)
No wonder the status quo lives on - after all, this is not a society built on 'giving away' anything (except freedom, you'd probably add;-)
Well done!

Jesse said...

Thank you Barney for your kind words. :)

Well, my hope is simply to illuminate the false ground on this issue to as many people as will see it. While I am certain that Copyright Abolishment is the ideal arrangement, I am not certain how to get there whatsoever.

We have come to a crossroads where Copyright cannot continue being effective without a great number of our present freedoms being sacrificed in the process. The techniques to root out or profile copyright offenders are identical to those needed to root out or profile political dissidents and ideological opponents. If you can identify and prosecute people redistributing your music, then you can just as easily interfere with people redistributing any music that is not yours. If you can attack networks which freely trade your content, then you will take down the networks that trade free original content and politically charged evidence in the same stroke.

This is quite simply a legislative and cultural power which noone ought to have the capacity to wield.

There was a time in human history when we fought for the right for ourselves and our families to survive. Many of those rights have been secured across a majority of the globe today. Counterexamples remain, but they are exceptional. This reflected the fact that one of our major imperatives at the time was the survival of our genes, and being free from outside influences hindering our ability to pass on our genes, that they may compete against the genes of others on their natural merit instead of the preference of powerful persons.

Today, atop the sanctity of ourselves and our offspring we also fight for the sanctity of our ideas and communications. Today, people are beginning to defend their memes from the same persecution as they had previously had to defend their genes.

Copyright holders cry out for the guarantee of a business model, to help cement them a shot at making enough money from their popular memes today to finance their efforts to continue publishing popular memes in the future.

Copyright abolitionists cry out for the free sharing of memes. I cannot express my idea if I can be drug into court due to questions of it intersecting with the memes of someone wealthy enough to suppress my voice.

One divergence between genes and memes is that I have no realistic control over the source material from whence my ideas or thoughts come. However, once I have the thought, and assuming it references or alludes to a popular work.. I feel my rights are being violated when the law dictates that part of my thought or idea belongs to a third party, and now I cannot legally communicate it without usurious licensing fees.

The very fact that third parties "own" data that is presently in your head clarifies that the law is unjust and untrustworthy. Just as, if you introduce the mathematical axiom "1+1=3", you can deduce from it that absolutely every statement in mathematics is both true and false. It leads to a broken mathematical system, which cannot be trusted to clarify the truth or falsehood of propositions. By the same token, Copyright law leads to a broken legal system by misapplying property rights to data and ideas, which then abridge the human rights of any person who willingly or unwillingly comes to possess such data or ideas as part of their personal, mental corpus. We have a right to self expression, but the law curtails that right whenever any part of our expression originates anywhere outside of the shrinking public domain.. at the behest of whomsoever owns the rights in question. They do not normally choose to curtail your speech so you do not notice them. Until they choose to.