copyright as “property”? – responding to Doug Johnson

Doug Johnson:

Peter, it seems to me (and I am happy to stand corrected), that you are arguing that if you can bring the cost of material and production of something to near zero, one is also obligated to bring the intangible value of that thing to zero as well. Personally, I don’t believe that.

What I’m arguing is that as the cost of copying/storage hits (virtually) zero, the illegitimate pressure put upon the public by the “property” approach is exacerbated. The “property” view (i.e. All Rights Reserved) is inherently antisocial and unethical. A prohibition on sharing is not needed to generate value for works under copyright. What all authors (and lawmakers) are morally obligated to do is allow the public to copy and share culture freely.

So, it seems to me (and I am happy to stand corrected) that Doug argues that if the public is allowed to copy and share, then the economic potential related to works under copyright is brought to (or brought close to) zero. Personally, I don’t believe that, and the evidence suggests otherwise. Forfeiting the “property” approach does not mean giving up any economic value inherent to the work whatsoever. Of course, the economic value of manufacturing material storage (e.g. CDs) and physical shipping may be diminished, but that’s the industry’s problem to solve, not the artist’s. Shipping and handling is not an artistic endeavor. In fact, any artist relying upon shipping and handling as their primary source of income is clearly not authoring art worthy of a livelihood.

Doug’s misunderstanding of my position is significant. If we really felt that artists should be “obligated” to make the value of their work “zero” then we would have to advocate such works be put anonymously in the public domain. In order for a work to have zero economic value to the artist, that artist would have to forfeit attribution and all other identifiable rights under copyright law (even then, it may be difficult to stop some economic value from reaching the artist). Of course, advocating such a position would be absurd. Such a position is the polar extreme of the 20th-century, copyright-as-“property” view Doug holds dear to.

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8 Responses to “copyright as “property”? – responding to Doug Johnson”

  1. An Author Says:

    You say: “What all authors (and lawmakers) are morally obligated to do is allow the public to copy and share culture freely.”

    This statement clearly implies: “What all authors are morally obligated to do is allow the public to copy and share [the authors’ works] freely.”

    I’ve yet to hear a fully-reasoned support of this claim, and it seems totally unjust to me. It sounds dangerously close to: you are morally obligated to work for free.

    I’m not intentionally misunderstanding you or trying to twist your words; this is what I tend to take away from your arguments. Is this indeed what you’re saying? If so, you’ve got a lot of arguing and explaining to do to justify that position. If not, can you help me better understand what you are actually saying?

    And I’m not much interested in semantic arguments, so please don’t get stuck on that level should you chose to respond (which, as there’s no contract here, you aren’t obligated to do).

  2. Peter Rock Says:

    “[allowing the public to copy and share] seems totally unjust to me.

    How so?

    “[Peter, your argument] sounds dangerously close to: you are morally obligated to work for free. […] this is what I tend to take away from your arguments. Is this indeed what you’re saying?

    No. That would be an absurd argument. If any of my posts have stated this, would you be so kind as to point them out?

  3. An Author Says:

    You’ve got me wrong.

    Morally *obligating* authors to allow the public to copy and share the authors’ works is what seems totally unjust to me. That’s what you assert in your post, and that’s what I’m asking you to defend.

  4. Peter Rock Says:

    The defense:

    It’s every individual’s moral right to copy and share culture. Granting anyone the legal power to stop this right is unjust.

    And now I ask for a defense of the outrageous position that obligating authors to allow individuals to share published works is “unjust”. Historically, the only argument presented goes something like this –

    “Sure, in theory it would be good to allow sharing but if we do, then authors will not be able to make money. So, we have to stop sharing. Sharing destroys the economic value of the work and is thus an injustice to authors.”

    This has typically been the baseless argument to justify a “property” approach to copyright. Is this your belief? It appears to be Doug Johnson’s. Or do you have another (and perhaps enlightening argument) that supports the “property” view?

  5. An Author Says:

    Your “defense” is merely a set of claims. Claims are not arguments, nor are they evidence … they are merely claims. You claim:

    “It’s every individual’s moral right to copy and share culture. Granting anyone the legal power to stop this right is unjust.”

    … but you offer no argument or evidence to support these claims. This is not a defense. Also, how do you define culture here? Who determines this? Are we talking folklore (which claims no specific author), or are we also talking works created by individuals? (Obviously, you mean both.) But what justifies for you the refusal to allow authors a limited monopoly on their creations? And would you refuse to grant anyone the legal power to stop or limit any kind of sharing under any circumstances? This way lies chaos.

    Secondly, these claims do not address my primary objection. There’s a difference between claiming that individuals have the right to copy and share “culture” on the one hand and that authors are morally obligated to allow others to copy and share their works (with no restrictions, for all time) on the other.

    Lastly, do you believe it is unjust to allow an author to make a profit from (and directly from) his/her creations, at least for a limited time? Do you believe it is unjust to allow an author to have control over what can and cannot happen with his/her creations, at least for a limited time? If so, the argument is larger than I initially recognized.

  6. Doug Johnson Says:

    “An Author” expresses my concerns quite nicely.

    I don’t see why both “values” about creative work – that is should be protected for individual gain or that it should be distributed for the public good – cannot co-exist. The creator ought to have the choice of how he/she decides to share his/her work. Being forced into making all one’s intellectual endeavors fall immediately into the public domain, seems to me the equivalent of form of socialism (or eminent domain universally applied.)

    Thanks for the considered response to my blog entry.

    Doug

  7. Peter Rock Says:

    Doug, the fact that you perceive my view to be an advocation of immediate public domain for published works means you have not taken care to read my post or comments. That’s unfortunate. As well…

    The creator ought to have the choice of how he/she decides to share his/her work.

    I truly hope you meant this but I doubt it. I think you meant “if”, not “how”.

  8. Peter Rock Says:

    An Author says:

    But what justifies for you the refusal to allow authors a limited monopoly on their creations?

    I’m fine with having copyright law. The question is – what set of privileges should authors be granted under copyright law? I’m against the extreme of forcing public domain status and against the extreme of All Rights Reserved.

    And would you refuse to grant anyone the legal power to stop or limit any kind of sharing under any circumstances? This way lies chaos.

    Please explain. I don’t understand how allowing sharing of published, copyrighted works can ever lead to “chaos”.

    There’s a difference between claiming that individuals have the right to copy and share “culture” on the one hand and that authors are morally obligated to allow others to copy and share their works (with no restrictions, for all time) on the other.

    Yes, there is a difference. But I would never advocate that there be “no restrictions, for all time”. Where did you get that idea from? That would be an extreme view that I do not share.

    Lastly, do you believe it is unjust to allow an author to make a profit from (and directly from) his/her creations, at least for a limited time?

    Why would allowing an author to make a profit from her work be “unjust”? And why should an author only be allowed to profit from her work for “a limited time”? Why should an author be stopped from making a profit?

    Do you believe it is unjust to allow an author to have control over what can and cannot happen with his/her creations, at least for a limited time?

    That depends. If you could be more specific as to what you mean by “control” over what “happens”, then I can answer that question more directly. I hope I’ve been clear however, that I consider it unjust for authors to ever have control over the non-commercial propagation of their work once they’ve published it. However, non-commercial propagation is only one action an individual can take with an author’s work. An individual could also make and sell (or set up some other profitable arrangement) those copies. In many cases (e.g. music, movies, novels – i.e. “culture”), I’m fine with giving an author the legal right to restrict commercial use so long as it’s for a limited time. In some cases, control over derivation is totally just (e.g. an opinion article) while in others, it is unjust (e.g. a pop song). So really, your question is too vague. It would be silly to be totally for all control or totally against any control. It depends on the work in question.

    As for your concern that my defense is “merely a set of claims” with “no argument or evidence” I’m not sure what it is you’re looking for. I could point out things such as the deterioration of fair-use, unjust lawsuits against file-sharers, and DRM backed by unjust anticircumvention measures expressed in laws like the DMCA. All of these are products of the “property” view. One could also point out the corrosive psychosocial result of labeling millions of citizens as criminals. All of these problems need not exist and quality art can still generate income for artists.

    So, what is the defense in criminalizing the sharing of published works?

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