Another blast from the past, out of the same box: I believe this letter to the Durham-based Independent Weekly was published, in some form at any rate.
3 February 1995
To the Editor:
The copyright hassles of Blaise Faint (Independent Weekly 2/1/95) [2010 note: alas, I no longer recall what Blaise Faint’s copyright hassles were] illustrate how obsolete intellectual property rights have become in the electronic age, when information can be duplicated and transmitted a hundred times over in the blink of an eye.
Intellectual property rights – copyrights, patents, and the like – have always stood on dubious ground, both ethically and economically.
Don’t get me wrong. As a wild-eyed free-marketeer, I’m a fan of property rights in general – probably more so than most people. And at one time my enthusiasm for property rights extended to intellectual property as well.
But ethically, property rights of any kind have to be justified as extensions of the right of individuals to control their own lives. Thus any alleged property rights that conflict with this moral basis – like the “right” to own slaves – are invalidated. Intellectual property rights also fail to pass this test. To enforce copyright laws and the like is to prevent people from making peaceful use of the information they possess. If you have acquired the information legitimately (say, by buying a book), the on what grounds can you be prevented from using it reproducing it, trading it? Is this not a violation of the freedom of speech and press?
It may be objected that the person who originated the information deserves ownership rights over it. But information is not a concrete thing an individual can control; it is a universal, existing in other people’s minds and other people’s property, and over those the originator has no legitimate sovereignty. You cannot own information without owning other people.
As for the economic case for property rights, that case depends on scarcity, and information is not, technically speaking, a scarce resource. If A uses some material resource, that makes less of the resource for B, so we need some legal mechanism for determining who gets to use what when. But information is not like that; when A acquires information, that does not decrease B’ share, so property rights are not needed.
Some will say that such rights are needed in order to give artists and inventors the financial incentive to create. But most of the great innovators in history operated without benefit of copyright laws. Indeed, sufficiently stringent copyright laws would have made their achievements impossible. Great playwrights like Euripides and Shakespeare never wrote an original plot in their lives; their masterpieces are all adaptations and improvements of stories written by others. Many of our greatest composers, like Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Ives, incorporated into their work the compositions of others. Such appropriation has long been an integral part of legitimate artistic freedom. (In any case, whatever protection innovators may need can be achieved through voluntary means, such as contract or boycott; there are many successful historical examples of this kind of remedy in copyright cases.)
Though never justified, copyright laws have probably not done too much damage to society so far. But in the Computer Age they are now becoming increasingly costly shackles on human progress. Consider, for instance, Project Gutenberg, a marvelous nonprofit effort to transfer as many books as possible to electronic format and make then available over the internet for free. Unfortunately, most of the works done to date have been pre-20th century – to avoid the hassles of copyright law. Thus, copyright laws today are working to restrict the availability of information, not to promote it. More importantly, modern electronic communications are simply beginning to make copyright laws unenforceable, or at least, unenforceable by any means short of a government takeover of the internet – and such a chilling threat to the future of humankind would clearly be a cure far worse than the disease.
Intellectual property rights are a luxury we can no longer afford.
Roderick T. Long