From an article by Daniel Akst in the business section of today’s New York Times:
Internet music sharing represents a profound assault on the very idea of intellectual property. Today it’s music, but tomorrow it will be movies and then books, and the justifications will be the same. The implications should be obvious to producers of intellectual property, but the outcry has been muffled in part because universities have come to own and operate so much of the nation’s intellectual life.
I am inclined to say, this is precisely the point. The notion of “intellectual property” is an egregiously bad one, and needs to be overturned. Congress will never, on its own, overturn the laws that define and govern “intellectual property”, because they get too many contributions from the industries that “own” such “intellectual property.” The widespread public feeling that there is nothing wrong with file sharing, and a public outcry at the spectacle of grandmothers and 12 year olds being sued by the RIAA, is the one thing that might cause a change in the laws.
Copyrighted material is not private property. The assimilation of copyright to property is itself deplorable; but the Supreme Court ruled, as recently as 1985, that copyright infringement and theft are two completely separate things, as I have already noted in these pages.
The whole notion of “intellectual property” is an extension of this false claim that copyrighted material is private property. Indeed, it represents a massive privatization of what used to be a common good. As such, it is anti-democratic, anti-freedom, and benefiting big corporations rather than the great mass of people.
The notion of “intellectual property” is incompatible with the freedom of ideas.
Limited copyright – which emphatically does not mean property ownership – was originally instituted in order to encourage innovation, by giving creators financial rewards for such innovation. But the virtually unlimited copyright laws of today in fact stifle innovation, since they prevent the reuse of previously existing cultural material.
Akst notes (correctly) that “If you live on an academic paycheck – instead of royalties – then the free electronic distribution of your scholarly works is probably preferable to having a university press print 500 copies bound directly for the deepest library stacks.” This is indeed my own situation, which of course could explain why my own self-interest is not tied up with preserving draconian notions of copyright.
But when Akst says that copyright is ” the legal concept that is essential to freedom and prosperity in the information age,” he is just engaging in doublespeak.
He ends his article with a terrifyingly totalitarian view of how to manage the Internet: “Sooner or later we will need to know who everyone on the Internet is, and who confirmed their identities. Internet access providers who admit unauthenticated users will have to be shut out, even if that means shutting out whole countries.”
Preserving “freedom” for corporations (who have benefited for a century from the inane legal fiction that they are “individuals”) means denying freedom to all those individuals who don’t happen to be wealthy corporations.