Off the Keyboard of RE
Note from RE: This article was originally written during the Napster File Sharing prosecutions in around 2005 or so. I’m featuring it again here in “honor” of Apple’s recent “victory” over Samsung in the Smart Phone/Table Copyright War.
Discuss this article inside the Diner
Sometimes, because we are so immersed in the values, social system and laws of the late stage industrial society in which we live, it is difficult to see how some of the concepts we think are immutably set in concrete really are not that way at all. The concept of intellectual property and ownership of ideas is one of those cases. The issue of Musical Ownership and Copyright provides an excellent test case for the validity of some of our current concepts. Music, because it does not have substance, is particularly easy to reproduce. This makes it a very difficult thing to “own”, and to have “rights” to. Technology of course has made this easier, but this has been the case since the dawn of time.
Lets say I am a tribal flute player in post-Neanderthal France, and go to the annual gathering of tribes at the Summer Meeting to play my latest tune. I worked all through the cold days of winter in the cave composing this masterpiece. It is such a moving love song that the birthrate in the spring for my tribe is huge 🙂 We are talking a Double Platinum Chart Topper on the Cro-Magnon Billboard. All the flute players from all the other tribes come to the Summer Meeting, and the teenyboppers squeal when I arrive in camp toting my flute. Of course since writing has not yet developed the other flute players can’t buy the sheet music from me, and it is darn tough to cut a CD out of rock. The teenyboppers will have to come to my campfire to hear the tune also, a major league benefit. (… and this one time, at band camp…:-)
Reaching back into our human history, all music was heard, learned and played by ear live, and in fact people who learn this way generally have what we call today “perfect pitch”. Anyhow, the outcome of my performance is that now all the other flute players can play my masterpiece. There is no way for me to “charge” them for this knowledge. I could charge them to come listen to me around my campfire, but I could not charge them for every time they played their flute after that, or for teaching it to other flute players. Of course, in a tribal society, I would have huge status from this, and most likely I would get quite a bit of tribute, particularly from the teeny boppers. Modern day Rock Stars have long capitalized on this particular phenomenon as well. However, its not obligated, because there is no way to do so. Even if I exclude people who don’t pay to hear my flute performance, they will eventually learn it from the people who did pay. This is why traditionally, musicians earned their money through performance, which is effectively manual rather than intellectual labor.
On the other hand, lets say I am a first class spear point maker. While my friend the flute player is composing his masterpiece, I am toiling away making 10 razor sharp double edged press-flaked obsidian blades a day, a totally revolutionary technique. With 50 blades I can trade for a goat at the Summer Meeting. 200 blades will buy me a nice new wife. 500 blades will buy an even nicer horse 🙂 Spear Points, unlike Music, have substance. They can be traded for other things of substance.
Like the composer, however, I do have something about my blades that can be copied. Other blade makers will figure out my cool double edge technique. Before you know it, the market will be flooded with double edge press-flaked blades. At next year’s Summer Meeting, it might take a whole winter of point making just to buy a goat. I’ll really have to save up for a couple of winters if I want to buy another wife. I’ll really need the wives if I want to buy a horse, because I’m going to have to teach a slew of my kids point making to have enough spear points to trade for one of those. Of course, if I was real smart, I would have kept my special press-flaking technique a secret, and only teach it to my kids, who I will have a ton of because I bought so many wives 🙂
The idea of copyright on music is a relatively modern one, as is the idea of patenting an invention. Both of these ideas have stimulated modern creativity and invention, because they make it extremely profitable to have an idea. It is even very profitable to steal other people’s ideas, change them enough to make them look like yours, and corner the market. Just ask Bill Gates.
In the world of academia, traditionally no one “owned” an idea. You publish your work to further the total knowledge of human kind. Other academics then use your ideas to create new ideas of their own. Knowledge expands exponentially because of the free exchange and use of ideas. However, in recent years academics have become jealous of engineers and industrialists who patent ideas and become rich, while they are pulling down a professor’s salary. You now have people patenting things like parts of the Human Genome, which clearly they did not invent, just elucidated first. Does this further human knowledge? I hardly think so. It just enriches those who get there first and legally binds up the ideas.
While the concept of ownership of ideas has been good for our society in some ways, in others it is not so good. It devalues individual work of the manual kind, because you can be paid many times over for having one good idea. It limits the free flow and use of information. Finally, it creates an incredibly tangled legal concept that is extremely hard to enforce. So in addition to outrageously wealthy “owners” of ideas like Bill Gates, you have some extremely well-to-do patent lawyers.
What goes around, comes around. The ability to “sell” idea oriented stuff like literature and music worked very well when the means of producing printed material or plastic discs required large industrial style production facilities for the printing of books or the pressing of record albums. However, because of technology, as in the days of the Cro-Magnon when stories were passed on orally and music was played and listened to live by individuals, protecting and charging for these ideas has become impractical and unenforceable, for the most part. On the large scale, the ownership concept can still be enforced against a service like Napster, but it can’t stop the millions of individuals burning CDs, or establishing their own small Napster-like trading systems on the web.
As a person who values thought and ideas, and who has quite a few of my own, I certainly try to protect my material so that it retains its value. But I recognize also that because of the nature of technology and communication systems in the modern era, it is quite possible for people to copy things I conceive of. My curret project is particularly hard to copy in its full form, because it has many aspects which only I can personally provide, at least at the bargain basement price I provide them. The database software is custom designed for every individual bizness. Most people don’t know how to REALLY use Access, so I have to teach that. Many people don’t have quite the information set I have worked up over 20 years, and certainly they don’t have them in searchable MPEG digital video form. Few people have the time, ability or inclination to do graphic layout and write promotional material for their small biz, and paying professionals who do this for a living is costly. Few people give bang up motivational seminars. I protect my ideas not by using the legal system, but by providing so many things that copying it becomes at best impractical, and in many ways impossible.
Certainly musicians should be paid for their compositions. Choreographers should be paid for their choreography. Inventors should be paid for their inventions. Writers should be paid for their writings. But how many times should they be paid? Once you put your ideas out there, you need some other means than the legal system to protect you from copying. Evolution of technology has made this concept simply impractical to apply.
In the intervening years since I first wrote this article, Digital Copyright Protection schemes and limiting the capabilities of computers to do digital copying has successfully maintained the system a while longer, although to be sure particularly in the Music and Film industry “pirating” of material remains a major problem for this bizness model. All to the good there, “Pirates” and “Hackers” are serving an important goal in removing the profit from extractive corporations which use the desire people have to be “entertained” as a means to tax them on that aspect of the Human psyche.
Also in the intervening years here, my opinion that people should be “paid” for anything they do has changed, since I no longer believe in using money at all. Whatever it is you do, from playing Love Songs on your Flute to making Press Flaked Obsidian blades should be freely given to others and all should be encouraged to give as much as they can to their community. Your generosity should be rewarded, not your greed.