Copyright is not theft.

Every once in a while I read some rants in the newsgroups, and find myself compelled to reply.  Below is a recent post I made in sci.skeptic.

On Thu, 09 Dec 2010 01:17:27 -0800, Michael Gordge wrote:

>> >> >> >> >A parasite is a person who claims he is not stealing anything
>> >> >> >> >by copying

I really get annoyed how often I see this opinion expressed.  It’s a sad testament to the power of the propaganda model of the American media.

Do you know how you can tell that copyright violation is not theft?  There are several ways.  One very simple one is that they had to create specific laws prohibiting copyright violation, despite the fact that property laws (and thereby the legal concept of theft) already existed.  They are disjoint and separate things, and someone copying a book simply could not be prosecuted under theft laws.  It was perfectly legal to do so until copyright law was created.  I.e. theft!=copyright.

Another way you can tell that copyright violation is not theft is the simple principle that theft, by definition, denies the original owner of the use of whatever was stolen.  If I steal your bicycle you have to walk or take the bus.  If I make a copy of your bicycle, we can both ride.

The reason you are so brainwashed to believe that copyright == theft is due to a very deliberate and expensive advertising campaign (which would have been called a propaganda campaign 70 years ago before the word became pejorative) trying to make an emotional (not factual or logical) connection between copyright and property laws.  It’s a very successful exercise in framing, which causes its victims, like you, to regard “intellectual property” as real property, preventing you from engaging in real and meaningful debate (internally or with others) on the subject.

If you did think about the subject rationally and free from the framing prejudice built into you by the mass media (who, not coincidentally are the biggest profiteers from copyright law), you might bother to learn about the history, the social context, and the social impact of copyright law.  You might learn that the founders of the constitution were strongly ambivalent about the copyright and patent laws.  They viewed them as restrictions of freedom of speech (which they are).  In the end they decided to implement short copyright laws as well as patents, as an attempt to stimulate creative works.

That’s a very important thing to realize:  Copyright laws are a form of government intervention in the free markets, to attempt to stimulate said economy.  This is not simply an interpretation of events, it’s an historical fact backed up by the writings of the implementers of copyright and patent laws themselves.   They should be a far more contentious and hotly debated subject than, for example, minimum wage laws, as *they are an attempt to regulate free markets through a direct abridgment of constitutional rights*.  They are virtually never discussed within the mainstream media however, as such a discussion would threaten the bottom line of said media outlets.  Thus it is up to us to inform ourselves, and parroting their ridiculous propaganda is not helpful, regardless of your political or economic ideology.

If you were to further investigate the history of copyright law, you would learn that copyright used to ~20 years, with the option for the author to renew another 20.  With increased corporatization of the media industry (almost entirely in the last century) the ownership of copyright began to rest largely in the hand of large corporations rather than the creators themselves.  Corporations are by definition amoral, immortal, and through their wealth and longevity are able to gain political clout through economic means.  They, particularly Disney, lobbied extensively to ensure that the works of long dead artists remain their exclusive property, rather than entering the public domain as they should.  In the most recent copyright extension, copyright protection was granted retroactively to cover works already in the public domain and put them in private ownership.

If you were not so effectively brainwashed you might begin to realize that the biggest parasites in this system are these gigantic and wealthy entities which profit from the creative works of others while serving no functional role in society.  If Elvis’s works were in the public domain, as they should be, rather than in private copyright, more people would have access to his music.  That we are not able to freely copy and share his music is not the worst effect of these policies.  Keeping Elvis’s works in copyright is certainly not encouraging Elvis to keep producing new work, now is it?

The real harm comes from the inability to use his work in new creative works.  The large corporations who did nothing to promote the creative work, are using their copyrights to reap massive profits while robbing our creative commons.  They are the real parasites, and I would encourage you to please educate yourself on the subject.

I’m not a copyright abolitionist, but based on scholarly work on the subject, and an analysis of how the economic situation has changed, I’m convinced that copyright terms should be growing shorter, not longer.  Previously copyrights were more useful as it might take some time for a work to spread effectively, due to less efficient manufacturing and distribution.  Nowadays a book or piece of music can be copied infinitely many times and distributed all over the world, virtually for free.  This means that media distributors need less government protection than they did previously, and indeed are becoming more and more obsolete.

Shorter copyrights mean less government intervention in free markets.  Shorter copyrights mean more material for more creativity.    Shorter copyrights mean more freedom of speech.  I would propose a return to 20 year copyrights (from the current 90+ years enjoyed by the oligarchists in the US), and after reviewing the economic and social ramifications of that roll back, consider a further reduction to ten years.

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