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Copyright Doesn't Matter, nor does CopyLeft

1. Discussion
1.1. expressed practical views

Lost in endless discussions carried on by the amateur barristers of the internet is the fact that copyright, generally, doesn't matter.

Copyright law is similar to trespass law in that there is a peculiar public fascination with it but yet it lacks meaning because of the practical limitations on enforcement. AvoidIllusion.

As a brief aside, consider the extreme difficulty that large, well funded corporations have in protecting valuable copyright on their works. Microsoft, Hollywood, the music industry, book publishers. While all these organizations have waged public campaigns of fear, uncertainy, doubt, and guilt, there has been little interest from law enforcement, and the RIAA efforts to bring charges themselves against individual file-shareres have run up against legal hurdles.

Private parties, such as the authors of individual posts or articles or contributions, have even less recourse.

You may have seen the SPA ads featuring a photo of a middle manager wearing a tie, in a prison cell with two rather rough-looking inmates. The ad features an 800 number and an email address for reporting piracy. A similar ad had the tag line, "nail your boss." Microsoft has a piracy@microsoft.com address for such matters. I've written to both addresses, with a tale of woe in four-part harmony. You know what? I got an automated reply. That's it. It's a dead letter office. The ads are just there to intimidate.

There are plenty of designated agent letters that go out to ISPs. There are plenty of C&Ds, including those the FSF sends out to well-meaning people who distribute binary tools derived from GNU without a full set of sources. Generally, these letters have no teeth if the recipient actually decides to fight them. I don't know for sure, but I doubt if more than a few FSF cases have ever gone to trial and been decided in the FSF's favor.

Therefore, do not concern yourself with copyright matters. The practical implications for the copyright situation with respect to to articles, posts, and contributions you write is irrelevant, because copyright does not provide an effective barrier to much of anything.

However, DoTheRightThing? with respect to other people's copyright. Just because a regulation is not enforced with HardSecurity, doesn't mean we should ignore it. And similarly, realize that a significant number of people will similarly feel constrained to DoTheRightThing?, even in the absence of an enforcement threat; copyright, considered an a formalized expression of desire and intent rather than (or as well as) a legal mechanism, will have an impact on the way many users view and treat the material.

1. Discussion

Doing the right thing implies that there is some sort of inherent ethical equivalent to copyright. Copyright exists only recently in law, dating to 1710, at which time it was limited to a maximum of 28 years and applied only to printing, reprinting, and publishing. Thus distribution of a letter, hand copying using pen and paper, public performance, derivative works, and so on were not covered. What could be considered "strong copyright" did not exist in any but the 1st world western nations up until the late 20th century.

Many people are so accustomed to the scholarly requirements for original research and the presumed copyright limitaitons in the era of the photocopier and beyond, that there is little de novo ethical thought in this area.

I write software for a living, but contrary to the received wisdom, copyright does not help me or my employers in any way. Most software written for pay is for custom systems that are largely useless to anyone but the original buyer, or given away to further a hardware sale, or so complicated it requires paid support. The companies that actually make money from royalties are prominent but few.

I prefer an ethical framework for creativity based on the commissioning of works. This is the original model dating back to ancient times. That is, an artist, writer, or other creative worker is commissioned to produce a work in exchange for a fee. In exchange for the fee the patron gets physical custody of the original work (for a painting or sculpture for example), and the prestige and ticket revenue from the initial performances of a musical or dramatic effort.

The ethical claim of right to the fruits of ones own labors should be countered by the overall burden to furtherance of creative endeavor. Copyright creates steep barriers to amateurs in any medium. An amateur rock-n-roll band can't create a CD of their own performances of 60's and 70's hits and distribute copies. To do so violates copyright, and there is no practical means to get licensing to record and distribute a few hundred copies for free.

Much of the value of highly popular works stems from their popularity, which in a large measure has to do with the public mood and role that a work has played in history, rather than creative worth. Was Country Joe & the Fish's big Viet Nam era hit made successful because of talent and creativity, or was a made successful by the thousands of protesters who took it as an anthem?


"I prefer an ethical framework for creativity based on the commissioning of works." Does that work well enough for, say, fiction writers? It seems unlikely anyone's going to pay much to commission a paperback murder mystery. Maybe people will still write them for nonmonetary reasons, or maybe we don't need very many paperback murder mysteries anyway. *8) But I'm curious if you have any thoughts on that part of the matter. -- DavidChess

To some extent, you answered your own question. A good deal of writing--fiction and nonfiction alike--is not done for remunerative reasons. For example, only a tiny fraction of the college textbooks written ever pay royalties to their authors. Potential authors of college textbooks know this, yet they continue to write. They do so because they must to advance their careers, because they want to, because they get bragging rights. But not for the money.

Fiction writers are in largely the same boat. In the interest of specificity, I'll point out that the leading science fiction magazines paid new authors $400 for a short story of average length as of 1985. Book efforts, be they fiction or nonfiction, are generally not a paying proposition for the authors, except for the lucky few that become bestsellers. And I do believe that it has more to do with luck (and connections) than with writing skill. People who write novels don't do so for the money. And most of them would be better off with an up-front fee than the airy nothings and promises of royalties that they get today.

Generally, as you point out, the market is saturated with fiction, with more writers turning out good material than the distribution mechanism can accept.


See also OpenCulture for an experiment with (similar?) alternative / non copyrights.

What I am interested in investigating is the social ethics of text, especially regarding LifeInText. CopyrightLaw, TradeMark, patents, and privacy happen to be the current best stabs at those approaches. I suppose I defend copyright where others knock it down as I don't see it as an economic instrument at the level we are working on, but rather a moral one. And while copyright of OnlineCommunities isn't practically enforceable through the courts, what a copyright disclaimer does it set up an ethical and moral Constitution of the OnlineCommunity in a vocabulary many can understand. If you consider it like that, then as an OnlineCommunity we have a responsibility to treat the contributions of our contributors with respect, grace, and integrity unless we lose the trust of current and future contributors.

For the MeatballWikiBasicsSnapshot project we had an argument with KarstenSelf over this. He did not understand that although he did not have a legal claim to the page, StyleGuide, we were asking him out of a moral obligation. To him, only the letter of the law mattered. For him, that may be fine, but for most people holding to the letter of the law is the wrong thing to do as we all AvoidLegalRisk. Conversely, using the letter of the law is a good way to filter out certain types of people, like those who are too legalistic, like the cryptonauts.

We have changed from a world where the only language was inside our minds, to one published through speech, to one written down and stored on manuscript, to one written down and disseminated through the printing press, to one with controlled distribution through copyright, and now one with a socially negotiated text through the network. Practically everything you publish online is copiable, modifiable, and distributable by someone else, thus the text is a negotation between the author and his or her readers->authors. Some argue this is sufficient justification to strike down copyright. Others think it's time to strengthen copyright. Neither approach is particularly right. In an environment where everything is social negotiation, you need a whole societal approach. You need a change in morality: CommunityExpectations. Democracy is only a set of CommunityExpectations, which is why we need a PoliceForce to maintain it where it unravels, but a national anthem to glue it together generation after generation. -- SunirShah

Thank you for sharing your insightful thoughts. By identifying a number of SpecificFrames you make it easy to see your point of reference. I think we agree that the legal mechanism around copyright is no more important than the ethical framework for sharing knowledge and creativity. My central point of view is that the legal framework, because of the various gray areas and enforcement difficulties, has little meaning. But you raise a valid point in that an ethical framework may be appropriate given the prevalence of LifeInText.

I see these ethics as an area still evolving and yet to be well understood. Even then, shared values take time to form and become ingrained. A complex ethos may be required, in that there are so many loosely related ways to misuse another's creative work -- ContextSwizzling, undermining of ForgiveAndForget, breach of discretion, inappropriately commercial use, and suchlike. Yet there are so many fair uses, and this leads to paradox. How can we preserve ForgiveAndForget and focus on the WikiNow while still preserving an archeological record for historians who may come after us to seek a better understanding of this time and our work, many years hence?


1.1. expressed practical views

The following notes seemed both pertinent in the context of this page and worth retaining, so I took the liberty of copying them from the home page of AlexSchroeder ("without malice" & ("without prejudice" as lawyers always say)) -- HansWobbe

[re: copying pages from WikiWiki to CommunityWiki]

The pages seem interesting and on topic. It will be an interesting challenge to accomodate an influx of C2 users... -- AlexSchroeder

They are also copyrighted, a la Wiki:WikiCopyRight and thus would have to be rewritten for CommunityWiki. The real ethical dimension is simply that the authors of those pages did not expect their works to be strewn across the Internet. -- SunirShah

Sunir if I create new pages on C2, and concurrently create the page with same content on CommunityWiki. Do you see any problems? Also I understand years ago before my time Ward and Kent split and they ended up in splitting the information on the wiki too. Do you know more about that, or know someone who is willing to talk more about that? -- anon.

You own your own words. If you write it, you can post it anywhere. On CommunityWiki, you relinquish control over your words to the readership. If you post it on CommunityWiki, anyone can repost your words anywhere. In the case you are simply refactoring other people's words, and it varies legally by jurisdiction, but that's usually irrelevant (copyright infringement litigation rarely happens without economic reason). More practically, there is a moral judgment: do you think people would mind you reposting their words? It's easy to project, "Of course they won't mind," but in reality that isn't the case. It's better to ask. But you still should not post it on CommunityWiki if you think you can get away with rewriting someone else's words, since CommunityWiki is way more, um, 'concerned' (to put it lightly) about CopyrightLaw than the rest of us (they have four licenses!). -- SunirShah


Can this fold with CopyrightParanoia (either direction)?


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