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Some thoughts on SOPA and Copyright

Anybody who's tried to use the Internet today is no doubt aware of the "SOPA strike." A lot of major Internet sites, including places like Wikipedia, Wordpress, and Reddit, are blacked out in protest of proposed US legislation called the Stop Online Piracy Act. this legislation, which has been intensely lobbied for by powerful interests such as the Motion Picture Ass. of America and the Recording Industry Ass. of America, propose to stop copyright infringement by non-US sites and protect rights holders. It and its companion the Protect Intellectual Property Act were drafted by people with little technical understanding of the Internet in ways that circumvent normal due process of law. Each contains provisions by which purported rights holders can order the wholesale removal of sites from the Internet, without judicial oversight or review, and each requires ISPs, content hosts, and Web site owners to police user-generated content and remove it if they believe it might infringe on someone's intellectual property rights.

Needless to say, both pieces of legislation are deeply flawed. They amount to prior restraint on expression, which is not permitted by the US Constitution, and they threaten to undermine the domain name system that's central to how the Internet works. All that is a given.

The Recording Industry Ass. of America and the Motion Picture Ass. of America have both demonstrated themselves to be clumsy, arrogant, and hamfisted in their approach to copyright. The movie and recording industries are both firmly wedded to business models that are rooted in last century; neither has shown any inclination to change as technology changes. (The Motion Picture Ass. of America has, rather comedically, published a statement in which they say that anti-SOPA protests are a "gimmick" that will "turn us all into corporate pawns.")

Robert Heinlein perhaps put it best when he said, "There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute or common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back."

But... but... but...

In all the debate about SOPA, there is an elephant in the room that nobody is talking about.

The elephant in the room is that people who create things deserve to be rewarded.

The current crop of Internet users is in many ways incredibly entitled. There is a very deep vein of hatred for the idea of intellectual property throughout the Internet generation. A surprisingly large number of people seem to feel that if someone created it, they deserve to be able to have it.

I have often made the mistake of wading into Internet conversations about copyright, and been astonished by the viciousness and entitlement that I see there. A lot of the arguments are based on a profound ignorance of what copyright is, but even more arguments are based on a hatred of the entire concept of intellectual property that seems to be rooted in the notion that anything I want, I should be allowed to have, as long as it isn't made of physical atoms. It's amazing, terrifying, and sad in equal proportion. And I can see why content creators get exasperated.

For example, in a recent debate about copyright on Facebook, one person made the assertion that a person whose work is copied without pay should be flattered by it, and "enjoy the fact that what you have written/drawn/painted/shot has moved so many people that they wish to pay you the compliment of forwarding your work to others to enjoy." Another person made the even more astonishing claim that "copyright is a tool of privilege" that "keeps art away from the poor," an opinion he followed up with "Art shouldn't be sold, it should be shared and traded." He then followed up with the notion that "talent is a birth-given privilege," artistic ability and creativity can not be learned, and selling an artwork or a song is inherently a tool of oppression because it's a way for privileged creative people to exploit those who lack the ability to create by denying them art that can improve their lives unless they pay for it.

The amount of entitlement these arguments reveal can scarcely fit in a double-decker bus. It turns the idea of privilege on its head (what of the poor, disadvantaged person who has invested a great deal of time and effort in learning a skill; should she not be allowed to be rewarded for that effort?); it demonstrates a breathtaking level of entitlement (if I like some bit of artwork and I think it makes my life better, I am entitled to have it no matter what it cost to produce and no matter how much work went into its creation); it relegates the production of art to only those wealthy enough to do it as a hobby, and that any creative person who isn't wealthy should, I don't know, work at McDonald's or something rather than creating; it spits in the face of the notion that people whose work benefits society deserve some measure of benefit themselves; and it cheapens and degrades the considerable effort that artists put into acquiring and building their skills.

And this is, amazingly, not an isolated opinion. It's a worldview I see reflected again and again and again, everywhere the subject of copyright comes up.

People who hold these ideas can not, I think, be persuaded otherwise. A person who feels entitled to something will construct rationalizations about why his entitlement is justified, whether it's by imagining creativity as some inborn thing like race or sex, or inventing a moral system whereby anyone who does something that could make another person's life better like create a painting or, I don't know, haul away garbage is ethically obligated to do so for free. Such people will often spout platitudes like "True artists do it for the love of art, not for money," setting up a false dichotomy that ignores the fact that creative people also have to eat. This argument also creates a system whereby an artist's merits are judged not on her technical proficiency or her ability to illuminate the human condition, but rather on how much stuff she gives the speaker for free.

Other arguments against copyright are based on simple ignorance of what copyright is.

Some of these are as inevitable as arguments like "Oh, so I should tell my partner every time I take a crap?" which I have heard, without fail, every single time I've ever seen a discussion about whether or not willfully withholding information from a lover is lying, or "So if someone asks me if her butt looks fat in these jeans, I should say yes?" that crop up as sure as night follows day in any conversation about the value of honesty. I have, to date, never once seen any conversation about copyright in which some person doesn't say "Well, you better not use the word 'copyright' because I have a copyright on it!" or "There's no such thing as an original idea." These people don't understand even the most basic principles about copyright; they simply don't know that a word or a sentence can not be copyrighted, or that copyright covers only a particular expression of an idea rather than the idea itself.

Other ideas about copyright that are just as common and just as wrongheaded include such notions as "If it's been posted in a public place, that means it's legal to copy it," which is approximately as inane as believing that if a car is parked in a public lot, that means it's legal to drive off with it; and the idea that as long as you credit the person who made a particular piece of art, it's permissible to copy and redistribute it at will.

These ideas are the Creation Science of copyright. They're firmly woven into the fabric of beliefs held by a very large number of people, and they're absolutely bogus. An emergent view that comes from these mistaken ideas is the smug, self-congratulatory notion that by copying someone else's work, the person copying it is doing the creator a favor; after all, it's giving the creator more exposure, right? (One has to wonder what good it is to have this "exposure" if we accept the notion that it's wrong for someone to want to be rewarded for creating things of value, but that's a subtle argument that's generally lost on the caliber of debate one normally sees surrounding the idea of copyright.)

People who create things of value deserve to be rewarded for that creation, no less than people who build cars or make computers or cook McDonald's burgers. This is a fundamental axiom without which there is no benefit in creation for any purpose save as a hobby. If we do not accept that idea, then what we are doing is we are saying that as a society we do not want the contribution of talented, creative poor people who can not support themselves in some other way; only the independently wealthy with plenty of time on their hands and the means to support their creation need apply. If I intend to invest in a camera, or canvas and paint, or studio recording equipment, I better do it without any expectation that my investment will be rewarded in any tangible way, and so I'd better have enough money to do so without the expectation of return. This idea is, I think, self-evidently horseshit.

Copyright matters. Intellectual property is important. This is not something that will go away, and because of it, the issues that drive dismal piles of misbegotten dreck like SOPA and PIPA aren't going to vanish tomorrow.

SOPA and PIPA are at this point almost certainly dead in the water, and that is as it should be. But that doesn't change the fact that the Internet is swarming with poorly-informed and entitled people who sincerely believe they have the right to have other people's work for free, and so we can reasonably expect to see proposals for more legislation like SOPA and PIPA to appear tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. This. Is. Not. Going. Away.

It is absolutely, undeniably true that there is more than a little hypocrisy at work in the attempts of organizations like the MPAA and RIAA to take the moral high ground about copyright while lobbying for legislation that does an end-run around protected speech. It is unquestionably true that, to a large extent, the copyright problems they face are a monster of their own making, the result of hanging on to antiquated business models that simply no longer apply. It is also true beyond a shadow of a doubt that both of them, the RIAA in particular, have long histories of treating the actual creators they employ very poorly indeed, giving their artists only tiny dribs and drabs of money while executives profit obscenely on their work. All of these things are true.

But not one of these observations is an argument against the idea that people who create novel things deserve to be rewarded for them. We would not say that an inventor, a creative person who applies her talents to solving practical problems, should do so merely for the love of inventing, nor that "true" inventors would never charge for their inventions; and most of us would probably find it quite laughable if someone were to say that an inventor who sold her invention was an oppressor, using her innate privilege to deny other people of things that can benefit their lives unless they pay her.

So why is it that we are willing to accept these ideas when they are applied to someone who uses her talent to create photographs or paintings instead of widgets?

SOPA sucks. But the notion that people are entitled to benefit from others' work for free also sucks. We are, or we should be, on the same side here; our lives are made richer by the artistic expressions of others, and so we should want to encourage creative people to create. Even if they're not independently wealthy.


Jan. 19th, 2012 01:48 am (UTC)
"other than by making a profit out of a birth-given talent (privilege) which could improve other people's lives, if they had access to, before becoming a product with a price tag on it. Also, it doesn't hurt that artists love what they create: so, why they can't focus on the happiness they bring to people instead on how much dollars per word, or image, or illustration they can scrape?"

"Your idea of what your talent is worth, and how it should be "used"... THAT is entitlement, my dear artist."

"True artists do. They do it for the love and the need to create, and not the money."

These are comments from the facebook thread Franklin's referring to, and from more than one person. They're not referring to a concept of post-scarcity society. A nuanced and subtle argument which I would heartily respond to, especially with current thoughts on social capital, which I'm studying and working to expand on currently. These guys were attempting to claim that, in the real world, right now, artists should work for free. Pro bono. Out of a desire purely to make people happy. Because somehow, magically, artists are the one segment of people who don't need to eat, or pay rent, or buy clothes. And somehow, magically, if artists are not paid and in fact have to scrape for money doing miserable day jobs, even yet, the time will still be found for art to happen.

It might be naivety, sure, but it's a dangerous kind of ignorance to encourage, and very very real.

As an artist myself, and one who has relied upon it entirely for my my income through various periods in my life, and at other times have found my desire to create art being utterly crushed by the need to pay rent, I would love to live in their world, but I worry that the marshmallow clouds wouldn't hold me.
Jan. 19th, 2012 04:47 am (UTC)
Wow, that first one is just mind-boggling. First of all, I think FOOD and MEDICINE could improve people's lives a lot more than art, but no one is advocating that the producers of these things give them away for free.

And then...are they really implying that anyone who enjoys their work shouldn't be able to make a wage off of it? What a horrible world that would be!

I am a writer, and I love doing it, and that motivates me to do it. Sadly, as a mortal human, I also need to eat and have shelter from the elements. How do these idealists suggest I pay for those, I wonder?

Yeah yeah, I know, I'm preaching to the choir here. /rant
Jan. 19th, 2012 05:15 am (UTC)
Open-source software does just fine. I'm viewing this page using FireFox, and if you reply, I'll get an email notification in Thunderbird. The machine I'm using for those programs, and others, is running Kubuntu, which makes Windoze 7 look like crap in terms of performance, stability, visual quality, and user-friendliness. I haven't bought a piece of software in half a dozen years, and I'm able to do everything I could want with this computer, including running multiple businesses.

All the best software is free. The proof is in the pudding, and the real world says that open-source is perfectly workable, and often even better than closed-source. The same applies to copyrights on other forms of media, as well. If folks want what you create, you won't starve, or have to live in a cardboard box.
Jan. 19th, 2012 05:35 am (UTC)
Open-source software does just fine...when it has a wealthy patron.

Your free Firefox browser is funded to the tune of $300,000,000 per year by Google, which is decidedly a for-profit enterprise. Your free Kubuntu operating system was paid for by Mark Shuttleworth, a billionaire who owns his own jet and paid $20,000,000 for a ride to the International Space Station. I find your arguments underwhelming and less than persuasive; if anything, you have merely demonstrated my point that treating art and other easy-to-copy creative works as though they are post-scarcity merely makes them into hobbies for the wealthy.
Jan. 19th, 2012 03:34 pm (UTC)
Sounds like the creators would still get paid, though, right? Art was, throughout most of history, created at the request of wealthy patrons. How many of the famous paintings in museums were created in exactly that way?

But, thanks to the Internet, it doesn't even have to be done that way. Large numbers of small payments can add up to appreciable capital. Look at setups like Kickstarter.

I read around a dozen different web comics, which are all presented on their respective sites, free for anyone to view. Oddly enough, folks will pay because they want the author to continue writing. They may pay for original copies of art, or the opportunity to give input which may influence the direction of the story.
Jan. 19th, 2012 07:16 am (UTC)
I have been a graphic design professional, and an ardent Open Source advocate, and I dispute your claim that all the best software is free. The Adobe Suite still does things that Gimp and Inkscape cannot do.
Jan. 19th, 2012 03:36 pm (UTC)
I'd suggest that you do a web search for "open source graphic design," because I just did, and came up with dozens of programs listed.

I'm not an expert of graphic design software, so maybe if there's some specific feature that you believe is only available through Adobe, you could post that, and I'll see if I can find a program that does it?
Jan. 19th, 2012 04:28 pm (UTC)
Did you miss the part about "Open Source advocate" ?

Believe me, I know what's available, and furthermore, I *use* it. But there are things that I could do easily with Adobe products 10 years ago that I still can't do with Gimp and Inkscape. It's not a question of the *number* of programs available, it's a question of what any one of them can *do*. (One of my great sorrows, the gradient mesh, is *finally* almost ready in Open implementations. (It showed up in Scribus. Which was somewhat less than useful.) TEN YEARS after I was using it in Illustrator. I've been kludging to get what is a simple effect under Adobe.

Once upon a time, I was part of a Linux-focused publication that got me access to devs beyond just being an interested civilian. I've had long talks about what's what.

The problem I'm having with what was written was the claim of "better". State of the state is "very nearly as good" and "frankly undetectable difference for most users".

I use Open Office happily. I'm running Ubuntu with no commercial apps. The *only* commercial software I miss is for high-end image creation and manipulation.
Jan. 20th, 2012 01:11 am (UTC)
"State of the state is "very nearly as good" and "frankly undetectable difference for most users"."

Not true. Windoze 7 is rotting roadkill, compared to Kubuntu. Open source has far surpassed closed-source.

Even if we were to presume, for the sake of argument, that Adobe is better than any open-source alternative, that does not prove the general case.
Jan. 20th, 2012 01:38 am (UTC)
You made the hyperbolic statement that "All the best software is free."

Unless you mean something tautological, like "if it's not free, maineshark will not assess it as best", your statement is untrue.

State of the state IN GRAPHIC MANIPULATION SOFTWARE is that FOSS programs are 'very nearly as good' and 'frankly undetectable difference for most users'.

I use Skype daily. The *nix port is workable, but it's missing features from the Windows version. If you're a hardcore gamer, it's still hard to get away from MS. Denying these realities is ostrich-behavior that doesn't improve the state of things, and I object to it as an Open Source evangelist. FOSS stands on its own merits, and doesn't need lies and cult-like denial of problem spots to advance its message.
Jan. 20th, 2012 02:26 am (UTC)
"You made the hyperbolic statement that "All the best software is free." "

Yes, that was hyperbole, as you note. Hence, not intended to be taken as a 100% accurate claim.

"I use Skype daily. The *nix port is workable, but it's missing features from the Windows version."

Yeah. It's almost like Microsoft owns Skype, and makes it work better on their own system, eh?

"If you're a hardcore gamer, it's still hard to get away from MS."

Which has nothing to do with MS being better software, but rather on games being written specifically to run on their software...
Jan. 20th, 2012 02:44 am (UTC)
Who was discussing OS superiority? You said *programs*.
Jan. 20th, 2012 02:49 am (UTC)
Um, operating systems are programs.

I did not specify applications.
Jan. 20th, 2012 03:08 am (UTC)
Definitionally valid, but it really doesn't matter how hot the OS is, if there aren't useful apps to run on it. We have many, many examples in the history of CS of good operating systems that didn't go far. In assessing comparisons of various platforms, it really does matter how useful *users* find things.

I find it incredibly frustrating discussing this topic with FOSS OS/code/kernel purists. There are dozens of distros, but there's a reason why it took Ubuntu for *nix to take off in the wider userbase.

Jan. 19th, 2012 11:12 pm (UTC)
I have been a professional graphic artist since 1992, and I started using Photoshop at version 1.0.3. Yes, there are things that Photoshop does that absolutely no open source program can do--and believe me, with Photoshop's price tag hovering at near the thousand-dollar mark, I've looked.

Photoshop is a great illustration of one of the shortcomings of open source software development. A skilled computer programmer can sit down and write a word processor, or an operating system kernel, or an email client no problem.

However, writing a program like Photoshop requires more than skilled programmers. Adobe has those in droves, of course--the Photoshop image processing core contains hundreds of thousands of lines of carefully hand-tuned assembly language. But a programmer, or even a team of programmers, no matter how skilled, can not write Photoshop. It requires input from experts in color theory, prepress, color separation, matrix analysis, device profiling, and commercial printing--among other things--and those folks are going to be a lot less likely to contribute their considerable expertise to an open-source project.
Jan. 20th, 2012 01:11 am (UTC)
As opposed to operating systems, which require no specialized skills?
Jan. 20th, 2012 01:23 am (UTC)
Operating systems require specialized skills in a narrower range than Photoshop does. It's easier to find programmers skilled in specialized areas of programming like task scheduling or memory management than it is to find programmers who are also experts on color theory and pre-press.
Jan. 20th, 2012 02:27 am (UTC)
You're not defining any reason why such programmers would not be accessible to open-source software.
Jan. 20th, 2012 02:33 am (UTC)
The fact is that they aren't, for reasons I can speculate about (pre-press experts are less likely to work for free, or Adobe can more easily capture them by paying them). If there weren't any reasons, we could expect to see open-source software as goos as Photoshop. We don't.
Jan. 20th, 2012 02:43 am (UTC)
Actually, you've nailed the reason, right there. Adobe can afford to pay them more.

Now, let's imagine that Adobe no longer has the ability to charge inordinate prices for their software, because "IP" has been dismissed as nonsense. Hmmm... now they can no longer afford to pay them more.

So, basically, the only reason open-source supposdely cannot compete with Adobe, is because of Adobe's monopolistic practices. If those were ended, as I propose, then Adobe would no longer have that unfair advantage.
Jan. 20th, 2012 02:46 am (UTC)
...Free software lives on donated time and money.

Unless you're proposing a communist model where no one works for money, what do you envision?
Jan. 20th, 2012 02:48 am (UTC)
You answered your own question in your first sentence.

Those who like things, will pay to help keep them around.
(no subject) - trinker - Jan. 20th, 2012 03:02 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 20th, 2012 03:37 am (UTC)
Nice. So your solution, then, is to deny Adobe its intellectual property, throw all Adobe's developers out of work, and then they...

...what, exactly? They have to eat too, you know. Give their skills away for free? Work at McDonald's? Starve? Look for a rich patron like Ubuntu's?
(no subject) - maineshark - Jan. 21st, 2012 08:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 20th, 2012 01:29 am (UTC)

I am really sick of having this fight with FOSS advocates.
Jan. 23rd, 2012 12:14 am (UTC)
FOOD is actually a bone of contention. Our current agricultural system rewards farmers very poorly (any but the biggest often subsidize their farms with a day job) but the obvious answer-- consumers paying enough for food that it can be grown and processed with those workers paid a reasonable wage --is very difficult to bring to the table.

See: tomato picking, mexican agriculture, migrant farm workers, meat packing