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by Bernadette Yarnot

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On Copyright and Theft

I know I’m not the only person who is annoyed by the phrase, "Information wants to be free."

On the one hand, that’s a very noble sentiment. Easily accessed information (beginning with the invention of the printing press) has been responsible for more social evolution than any other single factor since the inventions of farming and trade.

On the other hand, note my phrasing above: "easily accessed." Not free. Far too many people are taking phrases such as "information wants to be free" (created by an advertising company that was *paid* for its efforts) and using them to justify theft.

What is theft? Well, it’s pretty simple: theft is the taking or use of another person’s property without his or her permission. Copyright is a formal stating that a person’s intellectual property (such as art, music, or writings, which can easily be duplicated) is similar to physical property.  The government grants the creator the right of duplication as an incentive to create more material, and gives those rights to no one else.  (Such rights can be assigned but not taken.)

Copyright law is very necessary if a culture wants to keep the quality of its art, literature, and music high. If copyright law is absent, it is justifiable for one person to take the work of another and present it as his own, basically getting the benefit without doing the work. Or a person may use another’s artwork to sell a product. It gets to the point where it is not worth the time and effort involved to create something, as there will be little or no reward. Moreover, everyone has to eat, and time spent on creating something just to give away may be needed to pay the bills.

When copyright law was abolished in France following the revolution, the quality of literature visibly declined, because all of the "greats" wisely devoted their time to other pursuits. Anyone can tell you that it is not unreasonable to want pay for your work. Or, at the very least, acknowledgment.

Most of you have, at one time or another, received email "lists" from friends or aspiring humorists. These lists all too rarely have their original author listed, and often, they were first posted on the web without the author even being applied to.

You think you haven’t? What about "The History of the World According to Student Bloopers"? The original was compiled by a man named Richard Lederer for his collection Anguished English, which also includes "Church Bulletin Bloopers", "Excuses", and "Insurance Forms." I honestly believe that every individual chapter of that book is circulating in one list or another, and I bet that no more than one or two versions has an attribution.

Or take the "Evil Overlord List" by Peter Anspach. That landed in my box well after I’d seen the original site, so I replied to everyone in the chain about appending the attribution. It’s important, because if we don’t affix those names on the end (or the beginning), it will be our words next— wrongly attributed and out of context.

Copyright is not a great big unchanging behemoth. It’s not difficult to apply (publish and add in that little © and the date and you’re good) and neither is it difficult to understand (the work belongs to the person that created it unless he or she signs away that control.) It’s pretty flexible (I can give permission for people to do certain things with my artwork simply by writing it down in the FAQ) and it is not unreasonable.

But what about content theft? Personally, it is not the music-swapping sites that worry me, because most people want to be legal. Really. Most people will buy an album they particularly like whether they have the MP3s or not— at least, if the cost is perceived to be reasonable. What is dangerous about the idea is the attitude that accompanies it, that users have a "right" to an artist’s work.

When someone claims that content that can be accessed (or hacked) is public domain and can be used by anyone without permission, he is saying: "If I can take it away from you, it is rightfully mine." That’s a terrifying statement. It eradicates the rule by government and instates rule by force. It is the same argument that justifies shoplifting, property theft, and vandalism.

Do you think that’s a bit harsh? After all, content is "only" the product of someone’s time and effort.

(Please note that this is a rant on the general state of copyright; it does not address the justifiable concerns with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.)

What do you think?  Talk to me.

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