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Property and Copyright

CopyrightProperty rights are a thing enshrined in law in most countries, even Communist ones, because they make sense. Property, insofar as it is tangible, is a part of a person’s “stuff”, their space, the things they use every day, the things they need to live. It’s all reasonable and no one argues with the idea that you shouldn’t take another person’s stuff.

What about a family, then? Families share, but within the family there is some kind of respect for each member’s stuff, such as a bed room, or toys or favorite coffee cups.

And then there is public property, which everybody has some feeling of ownership over and, generally, has the respect not to deface or destroy.

All of this is straightforward because it is material and tangible. But now comes the leap of faith which goes something like:

You wouldn’t walk into a bookstore and take a book without paying, would you? That would be stealing.

So, if you download a book you didn’t pay for on-line, you are stealing too.

On one hand there is the physical book. On the other, an electronic representation of the book.

They are arguing that what a person is paying for is the idea that the book contains, not the paper, binding and ink from which the book was made. Yet ideas are not a part of a person’s “stuff” if they are published. Publication is the act of putting something into the public domain. What other domain is it in, if not public? If you give away a book that you once paid for, you cannot be sued for copyright violation. This in itself shows that the dissemination of the idea is not what is being really protected. There is also an admission of this basic truth in that copyrights expire, albeit after fifty years. So why fifty years and not fifty seconds?

Fifty years was probably argued to be the amount of time it might take for a book to have made its way onto every bookshelf. That is, for the full number of copies to have been sold. Yet on the Internet, distribution can be instantaneous and, under the right circumstances, every possible copy of a book could have been electronically distributed within several hours.

It is clear, then, that this aim to equate ideas with the media on which they are presented is bogus. Everybody is prepared to pay for the medium. Everybody respects that a printing house has to pay its staff, buy equipment and so on. Nobody really has a problem with paying the author, either. But if we can get books out electronically and avoid the printing house, then all that has occurred is the partial obsolescence of paper.

If there were no copyrights, then it is argued that all those creative people out there would have no way to make their money. On the contrary, people have shown that they are prepared to pay for an idea when they feel that the money they are giving is going to the author. Someone who goes to the cinema to see a Clint Eastwood film is probably doing so because he likes Clint Eastwood and everything he does. If he had the choice, half the movie ticket would go to Clint to help support his work. But we know that only a very small fraction of movie ticket prices go to the people who created the idea (writers, actors, studio staff, etc).

The same goes for media sold in stores. Does it cost twenty dollars to get a plastic disc onto a shelf? It certainly doesn’t cost twenty dollars to get 5kg of paper onto a shelf. It might cost $4, for example, to do both. Are we to believe, then, that “$16 of every $20 DVD you purchase goes to Clint Eastwood, his studio and the actors”? This, of course is not the case.

When an idea is a good one, people respect it and are generally willing to support the author financially. What they do not respect is makers of paper-books, CD’s and DVD’s charging an exorbitant amount for this commodity in the name of the authors’ livelihood.

If we took the cost of the tangible property which is bought and sold in the stores or on-line via the postal service and separated it from the ideas that are carried on these media, then it becomes very clear that all this hubbub from the recording industry is about making money from a dinosaur that is long overdue for extinction.

We need to go back to paying for real property, for tangible goods. The financial crisis is no better example of how make-believe has been put on par with reality. People lost their nest eggs because they invested their real money (with which they bought their groceries) in pretend money.

Let’s pay the CD printers for printing CD’s. Blank ones are sometimes more valuable than the ones with music on them.

Let’s pay musicians for coming to the local pub or theater and performing. I’m all for helping them out with respect to flight tickets, meals and a bit to tuck away for later, especially if they’re good.

But let’s stop propping up the recording industry which only survives because of legislation and not because a natural market exists to support it.

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