Tuesday, July 21, 2009

More on "Intellectual Property"

Some weeks back I did a post on free-file sharing in which I asserted that intellectual property laws were applied a bit too strictly and that there should be more leeway in free borrowing and copying of files and software in the digital age. The post got a lot of comments, most of them disagreeing with me and asserting that file "sharing" was actually a form of theft that could not be approved of.

It is not my intention here to reopen this argument (keep that in mind before you comment), but to revist one of the points I made in the previous post and support it with a quote from the Holy Father's new encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

The concept I want to revisit here is the point that just because a person asserts that something is stealing does not make it so. For example, everybody agrees that if I take something from somebody, rob a store, or let's say even copy and sell a pirated version of a DVD, then it is a form of stealing.

However, people tend to accuse others of stealing when they are deprived of money they feel they otherwise would have made from a venture, even if there is no reason why they should have been making money off it in the first place.

For example (and this is an absurd example), say I set up a sign in my yard saying, "Come see the best yard in Michigan! Only $2.00." Then, all day long, I charge $2.00 for people to come look at my yard. Now, let's say some people don't like the idea that they should have to pay to see somebody's yard, so they sneak around and look over my neighbor's fence without my knowledge, or let's say they even sneak into my yard and peek at it without paying. Now, I may try to accuse them of theft, inasmuch as the sign says $2.00 for entry and they did not pay the $2.00. And, since I have been making everybody else pay $2.00, I could say that they are "depriving" me of the $2.00 I would have made had they paid like everybody else.

However, the fundamental questions for me in this case would be:

Is there anything intrinsic about the yard that merits charging people to view it?

Just because I privately decided to try to make money off of the labor I put into my yard, does this mean it is stealing of somebody disagrees?

Do I have any natural "right" to make money off of the work I put into my yard? A man is justified for the return put into his work, but is "return" always equivalent to "money"?

In this particular case, I would say that if I accused persons of "stealing" by trying to sneak in or view my yard for free, it is I, not they, who are in the wrong. I am in the wrong for applying an overly strict interpretation of what it means to "steal" for the purpose of profiting from something that I really shouldn't expect to get paid for. In this case, I would maintain that just because the property owner put up a sign charging people or accuses one's of disregarding the sign of stealing, it does not follow that actual theft has taken place just because somebody claims it has.

If this were a serious case that was reported in the news, most people would (instead of sympathizing with the property owner) probably laugh that he thought he could charge people to look at his lawn. Is it perhaps time in the Internet age to laugh at the idea that any artist or author can keep his work from spreading around on the Net completely free and unrestricted?

Now, let's look at a quote from the Holy Father's new encyclical that I think can be brought to bear on this issue. In discussing the disparity between the technological and cultural conditions of the rich and poor countries, Benedict XVI says:

On the part of rich countries there is excessive zeal for protecting knowledge through an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property... (CV 22)

This is an interesting phrase: "an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property." Now, in context the Holy Father applies this to health care, but it could be equally applied to any form of technological knowledge, even computer software or other programs that make it possible to share and spread video or music files.

I don't claim that this justifies everything I have been saying, but it merely brings up a point that I think needs more discussion: that sometimes intellectual property laws can be "unduly rigid" and can result in the stifling of the spread of ideas and information. I am pleased that the Holy Father seems to recognize that just because a company or artist claims that something may be a violation of intellectual property does not mean that it actually is, and that sometimes concepts of intellectual property can be applied to stringently, or with "excessive zeal" which is motivated by protection of profit monopolies and not in interest of the common good.


Anonymous said...

So called IP laws are man-made, not natural law. They exist to attempt to benefit society as a whole by granting temporary, artificial 'rights' to creators of works. It is debatable whether or not they actually do benefit society. However, today the excessive desire to benefit from them by the creators (or better put, the owners, who are often not the creators), has created a huge imbalance.
As I mentioned before, the use of the rhetorical accusation of "stealing" instead of the correct claim of "copyright violation" serves to shift the debate and hide the fact that these legal rights are man-made and subject to change and debate.
I'm glad you see this now.

The Reformer said...