Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Really stupid idea from a right-wing think tank No. 8593860193

The internet – or the bits I waste my time on, anyway – seems to be abuzz with people tearing Mark Helprin's piece about the need for perpetual copyright to shreds. Helprin's an author who works for the Claremont Institute, so is presumably no stranger to trying to undermine freedom and the rule of law in the name of freedom and the rule of law. Even by those standards, though, this all seems a bit sad. His point is that, while the US constitution may say you have to limit the length of copyright, the "real genius" of it is that you can get round it by just extending copyrights every time they're about to expire (I'm not making this up).

There have been some great explanations of why his proposal is so idiotic, and Lessig's even set up a wiki so that we can all have a go. It's thus entirely superfluous for me to add my two cents, but I thought I might anyway.

The argument is a variation on the standard theme used by everyone pushing for more rights, about how this stuff is actually property and you have to respect property, damnit. His own take on this is that the limited time of copyright laws amounts to governmental expropriation, and this is the image from which his argument, if you can call it that, gets most of its force:

Once the state has dipped its enormous beak into the stream of your wealth and possessions they are allowed to flow from one generation to the next. Though they may be divided and diminished by inflation, imperfect investment, a proliferation of descendants and the government taking its share, they are not simply expropriated.
That is, unless you own a copyright.

This is obviously ludicrous. The state isn't confiscating your copyright, it's stopped recognising it. The difference becomes comically obvious when you imagine the state trying something similar with physical property – Rupert Murdoch dies and seventy years later the state doesn't confiscate all his physical assets, it just declares a free-for-all on them. Whilst there's a school of thought that says this would all be good clean anarchist fun – I have visions of at least one of Britain's major newspapers being commandeered by some crazy Dadaist art movement and weeks passing before their subscribers notice the difference - it's a very different proposition to all News International's British holdings being absorbed into the government and Sky One becoming BBC 12 (or wherever it is we're up to now).

Similarly, if the government was actually to expropriate copyright after it expired - that is to say if it still recognised the copyrights and kept them for itself - things would look rather different, with the government in control of the copyright of every artistic work written before the twentieth century. Not to say it would have been all bad: depending on how you work the scheme, this could even have put the British government in the happy position of being able to block the recent Pride and Prejudice film, and might also have been our best shot at extinguishing the blot on the cultural landscape that was Mel Gibson's Hamlet.

My film prejudices aside, the point here is the same one that everyone seems doomed to have to keep making to bone-heads like Helprin who hear the word “property” in debates about “intellectual property” and get all over-excited: Property rights in ideas is essentially very different to property you can break your foot on. Forget this and you're apt to look like a moron.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Support the Open Rights Group Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.