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My current stance on copyright

Patents and Trademarks

Let me just briefly get these out of the way in the beginning of this essay. They are distinct from copyright and should not be lumped in. Trademark is a monopoly on a name, patent is a monopoly on an idea, and copyright is a monopoly on a particular implementation, a particular text or image for example.


I don’t have any major problems with trademarks. It sucks that we are drowning in ads and brands, but that’s more a problem of communication than something that’s inherently tied to trademarks. As you’ll see as I get to the copyright discussion, I think it make sense that we have some protection over our own names and identities. As much as I hate a particular soda brand, it would be even worse if someone could market even worse sludge under that name and no-one could check.


I am definitively against software patents, but patents in other fields (for example classical mechanics, and biology) are problematic as well. I don’t work in the medical field, I’m just an outsider. With my limited knowledge, it seems to me that drug patents do a lot more harm than good and that there is a lot of corruption among big pharma. However, I’ve heard the occasional drug researcher somehow trying to rationalize the drug patents, but I don’t usually hear the same about software patents from programmers. Programmers and even software firms are usually not in favor of patents. It’s lawyers and patent trolls that are. We don’t want it! It tangles up everything because mixing and matching algorithms is part of how new algorithms are made, and it’s also really easy to accidentally reinvent what’s already been invented.

Is the work secret?

If the work isn’t published, it’s not published. Don’t take someone’s personal secret diary and seed it on BitTorrent. I wouldn’t mind a prohibition about that. What I’m talking about applies to published works only. Simple as that.

Who made the work?

If you didn’t make it, don’t pretend that you did it. Don’t scrub off the real credit, and don’t pass yourself off as the real creator. This is kind of a razor’s edge to walk correctly. We want the correct credit and attribution, but we don’t want to appear to endorse editions (especially changed editions) of works outside our control.

In a world where everyone is allowed to make and distribute copies of published works, we still might want a rule that would enable us to be clear about “this, this edition is the one that I endorse, that I’ve put out, that’s financially and creatively tied to me”. Here is where trademark law can actually help us. You can use the work, but you can’t use my name, my self.

Who is the work about?

I have a lot of sympathy for the idea of “subjectrights”. In Europe, a lot of data protection laws came out of the anti-computer paranoia of the early 1980:s. We feared all details of our lives would be tracked in giant data centers. Then the “desktop revolution” happened, a decentralized network (the internet) took a strong lead over centralized bulletin boards and intranets, and early adopters and the avant garde laughed at these old-school laws.

Unfortunately, those paranoid dystopic visions came true. The decentralized ideas are dying. Most people don’t use normal home pages, IRC, news, mail. Instead, it’s all super-centralized services like YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, Twitter, Netflix, iTunes and Google. (All covered in the webs of the big tracking ad networks.) Instead of making a decentralized protocol, someone makes a “service” that depends on centralizing the data. So the big data corporations are definitely someone we might want “subjectrights” to protect us from. It’s still HTTP and DNS, but it’s in a way where there are a few giants in each niche, in a way we can’t vote about or can’t influence. It’s the bad old network effect externality that plagues so many market economies. You want to put up videos? You do it on the same big video site that everyone else uses, so you can get noticed there. You want to put up a crowdfunded project? Well, there’s pretty much one place to consider first of all. Same goes for any other type of communication. New actors arrive, but they do it with a new way of communication (“Hey, it’s like a blog, but… really short entries!” “Hey, it’s like an old camera!” “Hey, it’s like email but… no spam! At least until the spammers find it.”) rather than as true competition.

At the same time, and this is something I’m having a hard time being dialectic about, the decentralization and anonymity that still does remain in some extend on the internet can also have harmful effects that trample our “subjectrights”. I can’t get behind doxxing, dogpiling and vengeance porn. It’s weird, we have pages upon pages against making copies of successful music, but this is an area where we have way too little protection against things that really ruins the lives of individual humans.

Who can make copies of the work?

So with those three very important exceptions out of the way, what remains can be stated simply. For published works that aren’t about an unwilling subject, I want to everyone to be able to make, remix and even sell copies as long as they don’t misrepresent the authors of those works. Simple as that.

This entire essay was prompted by an episode of Hello Internet where one of the hosts, CGP Grey, argues for limiting copyright by time. Seeing him state his position so clearly, which was great, I want to state my own differing position just as clearly and simply. I want to abolish this aspect of copyright completely: the monopoly on making copies. No time limit, no nothing, just boom. Not 14 years, not 14 minutes. But I really really wanted that simple statement to be accompanied by those other underdiscussed areas of the tangled mess of intellectual “property” and moral rights.

Copyright predates consumer-level easy copying of information. It was originally almost an industry regulation among different publishers.

Consumer-level copying and transmission of data brings with itself both new opportunities and new problems. Here is where we have “subjectrights” trouble, but here’s also where we can have great efficiency and joy in p2p networks when it comes to video and music, art and education.

The Two Unsolved Questions

How will the artists and studios get paid?

Listen, honestly? I don’t know. I can suggest lots of band-aids but they’re ultimately going to look silly compared to the money the IP industry has to work with today. My approach here is to look at this issue with honesty and curiosity about how big this issue really is. Even today, even when copyright does exist, there’s a lot of people creating art who do not get an income from that. That is how it is now and that is how it has been in the past. I’d love for this to change.

I also have to have kind of a tailor-made message here. For those of you who argue in favor of market economies, whether you be on the more laissez-fair end of the spectrum, or some sort of keynesian, I can see the appeal of not wanting to deal with this issue head on. Adam Smith wrote in a pre-digital world and a lot of your ideological foundation is based on the ideas of trade of goods and services, and the existance of a thing that is expensive to produce the first copy of (such as a big budget movie production) but is very cheap (even for consumers) to produce the 100th copy of (such a well-seeded Matroska torrent) rocks that foundation. Copyright (which is also an old idea) is sort of a band-aid in itself. Copyright says: “Let’s, through regulating who can make copies, all collectively pretend that this thing is a good that’s scarcer than it actually is.” I say to you: isn’t it time to see how your ideology can work without this make-believe band-aid?

On the other hand, for those of you who argue against market economies, whether you be on the more marxist end of the spectrum, or some sort of keynesian, I can see the appeal of not wanting to deal with this issue head on. The major strains in market-critical thought also predate the networked world and copyright promises to look out for the worker in their role as artist and inventor. Copyright is inherently an attempted solution that’s based in emulating a make-believe market economy. But digital “goods” is fundamentally something that’s neither a “good” nor a “service”. We need new economics to deal with this new reality. I say to you: isn’t it time to see how your ideology can fare in this new post-digital landscape?

The other big question

Whenever we talk about abolishing copyright, what we always get (aside from worries about those things I outlined in my “What I think copyright should be” section in this essay) is that question. “How will the artists get food on the table?” And that’s how it should be. It is a big, important question, and it’s a difficult one. By no means is that question settled.

However, I think that perspective is missing the opposite question. “How will the consumers get to make copies?” Without copyright, my friends can get copies of records and video games I buy, and I can get copies of records and video games they buy. With copyright, all of those copies are essentially “destroyed” (or prevented).

This story is going to sound stupid, but I’m going somewhere with it: Let’s say we’re music consumers and all I have is $10 and all you have is $10. If I buy a copy of a Lady Gaga record for $10 and you buy a copy of a Bach record for $10, and we then make copies of each other’s purchases, the record store now has our $20 and we have two records each. We both have Bach and Lady Gaga.

However, if we’re prevented from making those copies, the record store won’t have any more money but two albums will have been destroyed from the earth. I’ll only have Lady Gaga and you’ll only have Bach.

That story, silly as it may sound, is the core of my argument that the current form of copyright is economic sabotage, the destruction of prosperity and the choking of culture. Of course, it’s just a story — the internet makes it so that I have lots of “friends” (in the sense of “people willing to lend me their records even though it’s across the sea”) and more likely I’d give $0 to the record store, and have 1000 records.

This is why both of the “big questions” are important. The first question is not solved. Not everyone will magically spend a “fair” amount (nebulously defined) on their favorite records and then get copies of the rest. I do spend a huge part of my money on IP stuff (such as movie tickets) but that’s not by choice. Instead, as much as I can, I try to minimize that (really hard in our modern world) and instead rely on copies and lending.

But the second question, the question I pose to the advocates of copyright, is also not solved. In a world where these copies are prevented, how will consumers get access to culture cheaply and efficiently? We’re drowning in ads and subscription protocols and DRM and other things that all actively make our experience with the work worse. Audiobooks that don’t work on my phone, ebooks that I can’t access, videos that constantly get interrupted by the same ad over and over again. A p2p filesharing network is an efficient way for consumers to get access to culture without these problems and, were it not for legal issues, would be much safer and easier (as it is, the world of trackers and search engines is pretty shady, as is the copyright lobby’s legal attacks on operators and end users alike).

These two questions represent the two sides of the narrative. So often do we let only one of those sides steer and frame the debate completely.

Why We’re Stuck

Trade agreements

So the big legal reason why this won’t change in the near future is because our governments are tangled up in trade agreements like TRIPS and ACTA. This isn’t something we can easily vote on, or join or leave as we wish. It’s something that is negotiated by politicians who aren’t ideologically invested in the issues, and by lobbyists and lawyers and media corporations. They extend copyright, they push patent laws on every country, they essentially make the laws for us bystepping almost all of both our legislative and executive processes.

The skeuomorphic world

The big cultural reason why this won’t change is that our society really lags behind the technology and our every interaction with it is coloured by our technological past. The save icon is a floppy drive (well, autosaving and timeline metaphors are taking over more and more), our pocket computers are still called “phones”, and our digital ideas are still treated and viewed as as “goods”. I’ve been thinking about this issue for all of my life (and I’m an old lady) but even I am completely steeped in our skeuomorphic view of the world. I use digital brushes that look like “pencil” marks, I use “files” and “folders” when I write, I use a “stack” to keep track of my digits and operands when I compute. And I occasionally happen to think of copying as stealing, even though I don’t really see it as that.

Laws and anarchism

OK, I’ll keep these two last sections very brief. I just feel that any discussion about legislation from me has to be accompanied by some sort of thought about anarchism, government, and whether we even should have any laws. If you don’t know me, I used to be an outspoken anarchist, which makes this discussion about “hey I think laws about ‘subjectrights’ can be a good thing” sound weird to my old fans and friends. I don’t know if I still am one, though. I’ve always argued in favor of some sort of organization and against the “tyranny of the majority”, and sometimes I question whether that organization has to be a union (especially when robotics make labor post-scarce but resources remain scarce). Maybe there is some use in some sort of state. I’m not saying there is, for sure, but I am saying that I don’t know anymore.

Copyleft or permissive

Finally, and this is where I might lose half my readers… as long as we live in our current system of copyright, I am in favor of, or at least ok with, strong copyleft. (As much as I have personal issues with, and enmity towards, the guy who invented copyleft.) There are plenty of good arguments for what’s usually referred to as more permissive licensing, I’m not denying that. But this would be a whole big topic on its own, and a topic that’s… I kinda don’t care that much about compared to the large issue of copyright in and/of itself. I get why it’s a bigger issue for people who are in the permissive camp, where copyleft is an actual hindrance, than it is for people in the copyleft camp who don’t bat an eye if they see the occasional permissive license.

If you are like “Everything should be free, and all this copyleft is a big pile of unfreedom, it causes license incompabilities, it’s a hassle etc etc”, I feel your pain. I can get how you’d think copyleft is not worth it.

If you are like “I love non-free stuff and I love things that have permissive licenses so that I can take it and make non-free versions of it heh heh” then you’re kind of the reason copyleft was invented in the first place.