Tags: change of opinion

the most beautiful change of opinion: copyrights aren't sacred

What: My growing belief that the distribution and integrity of intellectual properties are not necessarily controlled solely by their creators, and are available for manipulation by others, as in this unauthorized Sesame Street/N.W.A. mashup:


Why: Ownership of works is promised in Article I of our Constitution, "securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." For two centuries, U.S. copyright law was mostly clear: If you owned it, you controlled it. In 1984, though, the Supreme Court gave away the store in the Sony Betamax case, allowing taping of copyrighted works for personal use. The presumption was that copying had costs: material, time, degradation. All that's gone now. Digital copying creates free, distributable, perfect copies. And what's worse for copyright holders is that these copies are editable, meaning that the works can be cut and combined with just about anything else. That, as it turns out, is where the fun begins. Two songs can mash into a song of great social and political import, and a critically panned film can be reborn like a phoenix. It is a strange new form of compliment to suggest that with the materials you create, I can make something better, without your consent. Article I is no longer so clear.

Impact: The cost to copyright holders is, in many cases, disastrous. If work is available for free, no one has to pay the creator. And so a lot of money is spent trying to stop this activity. Is it more money than is lost though this activity? That's not clear. Maybe that's not important, since the principle of copyright seems dear enough to fight for on its own. But many artists have succeeded because people didn't ask permission to share their copyrighted material, and some have gone the Grateful Dead route and embraced it. We are in the YouTube era, and the fact that nearly everything is available for viewing means our culture is the richest it's ever been. We are all the Library of Congress.

Personal Connection: As an originator of many works, I am dependent on royalties and payments from the sale of those works. For at least a decade after peer-to-peer file-sharing became available, I railed against it. And then in about 2005 (possibly coterminous with the Grokster case, on which I ranted on Lance's blog last week), I had an abrupt about-face on the subject. It's one of the few times I can remember completely changing my mind on an issue. It had something to do with helping launch the d20 System, and something to do with the rise of YouTube (on which this column is wholly dependent), and something to do with just liking the new world we were in. But the thing that probably clinched it is that I was not suddenly broke. People continued to hire me to create new works, despite the ability of the world to get it for free. So perhaps it wasn't the apocalypse I made it out to be. I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle—that it is the apocalypse for people who need traditional protections to prosper, but not for those who don't. I'm still evolving on this.

Other Contenders: I used to think: that the death penalty was a good idea, but now I'm done with that nonsense; that public education should be run by bureaucracies, but covering the Chicago School Board convinced me that parents couldn't do worse; that Richard Nixon was a terrible president, but I can now list a dozen great things his administration did; that broccoli was stomach-turning, but like that hamster I now think it's the best stuff on earth.