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Piracy and the value of freedom

by Jos Poortvliet

openSUSE community manager, Jos Poortvliet, wonders if putting a tax on the sharing of knowledge might limit social as well as economic growth…

I think you’ve heard about the piracy happening in the waters surrounding Somalia. Entire ships are captured, and their passengers are often hurt and sometimes even killed.

Interestingly enough, the term often associated with this kind of kidnapping and killing is also frequently used in computing terms for something quite different. Copying something and giving it away for free, without any motive for profit and without taking anything away from the original.

If I were a victim of actual piracy while sailing the seas, I would probably consider the word’s rampant misuse in technology circles as massively insulting. Especially as the victims of the technological form of ‘piracy’ seem to be doing rather well. To protect them against the hideous crimes committed, governments are willing to give up things like privacy and freedom of speech.

Of course, the ‘collateral damage’ done leads to protests. It’s not likely that you missed the SOPA blackout a while ago. For a day, hundreds of websites went black; joined in with the protests and so did many other FOSS projects. And, not surprisingly, the US Congress, or at least those within it supporting SOPA and similar things, backed off – for now. Freedom mattered more than the costs of ‘piracy’. Going forward, I will use the term ‘copyright infringement’, by the way.

So, good news. The modern, social media-permeated tech world beat the old-style media because it could mobilise people. And if you reach enough people and enough of them care about what you’re saying, you can change things. Freedom is luckily still somewhat important. Unfortunately, when it comes to our fundamental freedoms like communicating privately and without limits, both companies and governments have strong incentives to do the wrong thing and it won’t take long for the next attack to happen.

It is understandable. There are bad things out there – from child pornography to websites spouting crazy things like racism, silly conspiracies around inoculations, scams and much more. And yes, copyright does matter: free software depends on it to be able to go after anyone who is using free code to take users’ rights away.

But some people will always believe crazy things; and copyright lasting well over 60 years is well beyond reasonable and desirable. It’s just not worth it. As The Oatmeal cult online comic put it, SOPA is “like dealing with a lion which escaped from the zoo by blasting some kittens with a flamethrower”. In other words, not only are these measures against copyright infringement woefully inadequate, but they hurt things that we all love.

We are choosing the interests of a specific industry over the interests of society as a whole. While the strict copyright we have might be beneficial to that small industry, it hurts everything else: from universities to companies, from developing countries to developed ones. After all, the more knowledge that is shared, the more new knowledge that is generated. And by putting a tax on the sharing of knowledge, we tax the generation of more knowledge – ultimately limiting economic as well as social growth.

The industries fighting to protect and extend copyright know this, of course. They are losing the fight and, realising that, have resorted to questionable tactics and name-calling. For me that is proof enough that they are wrong. I think we should do anything to stop piracy (actual piracy). I think we should stop going after copyright infringers until the current copyright laws have been adjusted for the world we live in (there is this cool, new thing called ‘the internet’) and the industry which depends on it has ceased using morally questionable tactics to further their financial cause.

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    • Shawn

      No, some copyright is not needed. Any government does not have the authority to create monopolies unless it can show beyond a reasonable doubt that society as a whole will benefit more from them than without them. And it has to repeatedly demonstrate this since circumstances change. Copyright has never benefited the artist; it has only benefited the middleman. That is not sufficient grounds to have it. The sooner it is eliminated, the better off we’ll all be.

    • John N.

      Shawn —

      There is an innate conflict between encouraging innovation and creation and society’s desire to take such innovation and build on it. Eli Whitney knew the problem. He built the cotton gin and solved a problem, the solution of which was obvious from the invention and spent the rest of his life defending his patents. A similar problem exists in drug manufacturing – spend a billion and have your efforts copied for pennies.

      That said, you are quite right that copyrights run too long and, given the current patents being issued, the USPTO would likely not be missed if it were closed.

      My solution is to cut copyrights way back (seven years seems long enough for Metallica, to me) and the return to the patent test of novel, non-obvious (to practioners in the field) and useful. Patenting the unlock gesture for the iPhone is a case in point.

      You damn the current system because it doesn’t benefit the artist. Does the artist benefit if there is no copyright? Would you like your IP, be it a film, an iPhone app, an iconic photo or even a thesis to be co-opted to someone else’s profit before the ink is dry? Perhaps the app store will operate just fine when no one is paid for their efforts. Perhaps not.

    • John Copper

      ” Does the artist benefit if there is no copyright? ”
      Give us a micropayment facility and yes the artist would benefit.

      The pharmaceutical example is extreme. And who cares anyway about the drugs created that purport to solve one problem and create 3 more.

      Privatization of ideas is stupid. Let companies compete on cost and service.

    • Shaun Hunter

      Intellectual Property, even the term for it makes it obvious that it doesn’t exist.

      It’s like campaigning to “Save the Unicorns!”

      The media’s problem is that they’ve priced themselves out of the game.

      Who’s going to pay $100 for Avatar 3D when they can watch anything they wan’t including Avatar for an entire year on Netflix for the same price?

      Who’s going to pay $20 for a want add when will let you post it for free just to be able to advertise along side it?

      Who’s going to pay $1000’s for and add when google will get it to a larger and more specific market for a fraction.

      Let failing businesses fail or just give up on capitalism all together because saving these fools defeats the market.

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    • Emil

      John N: “Does the artist benefit if there is no copyright?”
      Slave owner: “Do I benefit if there are no slaves?”

      I don’t care if it benefits the artists. It benefits society. Monopoly and censorship of ideas are bad and should never be supported.

    • YetAnotherBob

      Copyright DOES benefit us. I like to read. Authors can spend more time writing when they have an expectation of payment.

      However, the analysis that I have seen for what a good period is for copyright gives a number of about 7 years. This is the period of time for 80% of newly printed material to disappear from distribution. It is true for books, movies, music and dramas. It is also true for photography.

      Some things disappear more quickly, a few, the top 5% may stay around for much longer. But, the bulk of material loses it’s commercial value after 7 years.

      If we really want to be fair, we can double that. Round up and get 15 years.

      This is what Jefferson did in early America. It is what a group of economics professionals did in Britain a couple of years ago. Interestingly, the analysis gives the same answer after two centuries. Technology has changed drastically, but people have not. It appears then to be more a problem of people than of technology.

      Longer periods of time increase the price for the public unnecessarily. It also restricts the supply of new material. Shorter periods of time ,shorter than 7 years, that is, harm the producers and creators. Very few creators can rely on old works exclusively. None can rely on old works without restricting the supply of new works.

      For the Artists who want to get paid longer, the answer is to keep working. That is the same answer the rest of us have. It is the natural result of life.

      Copyright also serves an additional purpose. It has always been a tool of censorship. A legal way to remove material that is deemed damaging to society. Things like terrorist manuals and child pornography. those distributing such materials can then be charged with violations.

      The US Constitution states that the purpose of copyright and patent is to increase the progress of Science and the Useful Arts. Since all art and science is based on previous work, extended periods of time for copyright and ludicrous broad patents impede progress in Science and all the Useful Arts.

      It’s a dangerous game, no matter what. A balance is needed. Currently, it’s badly out of balance.

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    • Andrew

      If you look at wikipedia; piracy is not the same as copyright infringement. It never was, and it will not be.

      Perhaps that is the reason litigation in usa has run amuck, wanting to change the meaning of words to suit self convenience.

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