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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
Okiemockbird 'Should auld copyrights be forgot ?' (54* d) RE: BS: 'Should auld copyrights be forgot ?' 05 Jan 00


As usual on the web, nothing in this post is legal advice or establishes a lawyer-client relationship. (I'm not even a lawyer).

All works of the human mind, by natural right, are the property of all mankind. They are, in justice Holmes' words, "as free as the air to common use".

As a pragmatic expedient, the public grants a temporary monopoly (a copyright or a patent) for a limited time, to the authors of certain classes of works of the mind. These gimmicks are arbitrary, temporary exceptions to the natural "free as the air" state of works of the mind. The ultimate aim of these state-granted temporary monopolies is to enlarge the public domain for the sake of the propagation of knowledge and the preservation of artistic and intellectual freedom. Everlasting monopolies (which are the objective of many of the copyright extension's supporters, as their own words prove) are as insulting to our ideas of equality and freedom as everlasting titles of nobility would be.

It is reasonable that someone who has contributed to the common store of knowledge should be paid, just as a contractor who builds a public road should be paid, perhaps by being allowed to collect tolls for a time. The privilege of collecting tolls may be considered to be analagous to a private possesion. But the road is, from the start, a publicroad.

The silly notion that "we should be able to enter artists' studios and snatch what we want" does not follow from the inherently public nature of works of the mind. The security of one's person, house and personal goods operates on the fundamental level of society; a violation of these is an attack on society itself. Copyrights operate on the administrative level of society; copyright infringement is more like moonshining than like theft. As I read, law that works on the administrative level doesn't (or anyhow shouldn't) ordinarily compromise the protection given by laws that operate on society's fundamental level. Copyright law recognizes this by requiring one to go to court to obtain relief, and by distinguishing the work from the physical copy of of the work. The work-in-itself is, and always has been, considered a distinct entity from any tangible chattel in which the work is incorporated. After the patent expires in a widget, you have a right to copy a widget that you have legally acquired, not to steal someone else's widget. After the copyright in a book expires you have a right to copy a book or picture to which you have lawful access, not to steal anyone else's copy of the book or picture. I consider this distinction so obvious that I am a bit peeved at having to expound on it here.

Someone once hinted that arguing for limited copyright disqualifies me from objecting to someone stealing my car. The absurdity of this argument should be obvious. A copyright isn't like a private car which you have bought with your own money. It's like a company car, lent to you for company reasons. For me to assert that the company shouldn't give you the company's car on terms that don't benefit the company has no connection to my right to a secure property in my own car, or your right to your own car.

Besides this there is the following concern: it is the copyright law, in the form of so-called "moral rights", that reaches into your house and tells you what you can and can't do with a painting that you have already paid good money for. As digital publication becomes ever more common, other provisions of the copyright law will allow plaintiffs, armed with court injunctions, to enter your house, sieze your computer, and copy all files from your disks. (This has already happened in at least one case). We may fairly question in whose minds concern for our right to be secure in our persons and property truly lies.

When the copyright extension was signed into law, I felt as if I had been a few years away from paying off the mortgage on a house, only to have the bank send punks with baseball bats who said, "That house you bought for a hundred thousand dollars ? We've decided it should have been two hundred thousand dollars. You owe us twenty more years of house payments!"

T.


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