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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
T in Oklahoma (Okiemockbird) BS: Should Music on the WWW be free? ;-) (53* d) RE: BS: Should Music on the WWW be free? ;-) 08 Dec 00

For more copyright humor check out copyrighting fire.

John P., you wrote:

Yes, I speak piously about artists' rights. This doesn't mean I am brutally raping the public domain, or that I don't deserve support from you in figuring out how to deal with the problem of piracy.

If you read carefully the words of mine that you refer to, you'll see that the metaphor of a brutal assault on the public domain is not used as a metaphor for the actions of any human individual, but as a metaphor for the operation of some recently-enacted provisions of the copyright law. It's true, though, that I chose those words to be provocative: I was angry when I wrote them. Like you, I have become touchy about some issues.

I consider what we now call the public domain to be inseparable from freedom of expression. This freedom is unalienable at its core, but partially alienable at its margins. In order to enlarge the public domain we, the public, give up a marginal slice of our freedom of expression temporarily to authors in order to allow them better odds of profiting from their writing than they would otherwise face. Copyright is not an author's inherent right prior to any law: it is a sacrifice by the public of some of the public's rights to the author for a public purpose.

Those who want music to be free may be right in their instincts, since freedom is the proper condition of every human being, and to be freely available to all is the proper condition of all works of the mind. BUT: the public has made a deal with authors, agreeing to refrain from exercising its full rights in the authors' works for a time. If the deal is reasonable and fair, the public needs to hold up its end of the deal. If the deal is not reasonable and fair (as presently in the U.S.), it becomes a matter of individual conscience whether to abide by the copyright law notwithstanding, or conscientiously to disregard it. In those cases where uplinking unauthorized MP3s of copyrighted music to Napster is a mature, well-thought-out act of civil disobedience, I will hesitate to judge those who engage in it, even if I would not have made the same decision.

We might suspect that some users of Napster are not sober conscientious objectors to the copyright law, but mere opportunists. Where the copyright law has become contemptible, however, widespread disregard for it shouldn't surprise us, even if it doesn't please us. In an earlier post I described copyright as "a tax on readers for the benefit of writers." One of my critics thought this a step on the road to "madness", but those who are familiar with the history of copyright in English-speaking countries will have recognized the reference to Thomas Macaulay's speech in the House of Commons on February 5th, 1841, where he said:

 The principle of copyright is this. It is a tax on readers for the purpose of giving a bounty to writers. The tax is an exceedingly bad one; it is a tax on one of the most innocent and most salutary of human pleasures; and never let us forget that a tax on innocent pleasures is a premium on vicious pleasures.   

Macaulay went on to conclude his speech with a warning which I think applies to our present situation here in the U.S.:

  Just as the absurd acts which prohibited the sale of game were virtually repealed by the poacher, just as many absurd revenue acts have been virtually repealed by the smuggler, so will this law be virtually repealed by piratical booksellers. At present the holder of copyright has the public feeling on his side. Those who invade copyright are regarded as knaves who take the bread out of the mouths of deserving men...Pass this law, and this feeling is at an end....On which side, indeed, should the public sympathy be when the question is whether some book as popular as Robinson Crusoe, or the Pilgrim's Progress, shall be in every cottage, or whether it shall be confined to the libraries of the rich for the advantage of the great-grandson of a bookseller who, a hundred years before, drove a hard bargain for the copyright with the author when in great distress ?...The wholesome copyright which now exists will share in the disgrace and danger of the new copyright which you are about to create.  


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