There's an old joke in which a man asks a woman if she'd sleep with him for a million dollars. After some thought, she says yes. Then he asks her if she'd sleep with him for 50 dollars. She says, "of course not! What kind of girl do you think I am?"

"We've established what kind of girl you are," he replies. "Now we're just haggling over the price."

When it comes to a lot of the more vocal proponents of abolishing copyright, that punch line applies.

The problem with a large part of the anti-copyright crowd is that they don't understand or won't admit what copyright entails as a concept. That is the right of the creator of a work to exert some control over how it's used, who can copy and distribute it, and a right to have their authorship acknowledged.

These members of the anti-copyright crowd cite the GPL (GNU Public License) as an alternative to copyright without any sense of the ironic fact that the GPL can't exist without copyright. They're proposing a solution while simultaneously advocating the destruction of the thing that makes their solution workable. While the GPL is less restrictive than other licensing methods, it's a license and it does impose some restrictions on or conditions for use of the work. It is a method of controlling your work. But without copyright, the GPL could not be enforced.

Without copyright, the creator would have no power to dictate any licensing terms, even the GPL's licensing terms. Their work would go into the public domain and anyone anywhere could use it in any way they wanted. Drop the argument of whether or not profit motive drives creation sufficiently enough that it needs to be retained. Let's look at what happens if the GPL is unenforceable.

You create some cool open source app. Then some megacorporation comes along, removes all your claims of credit, adds 10% more code, compiles it, and distributes the executable binary locked up in DRM. Under the GPL, you could retain your own lawyer or appeal to the FSF to sue them and force them to open up their application. But without copyright enabling you to dictate licensing terms such as the GPL, you have no legal recourse. They get away with it and the worst they suffer is some bad publicity... maybe.

Would that theft of your work act as a disincentive to creating more works? Would you say to yourself, "why bother slaving away to create this when some megacorporation can just steal it, put their name on it, and lock it up in DRM"? Perhaps you would. Perhaps you wouldn't. But some people would and that would take more creators out of the market and lower the quantity and quality of content that's available.

Those who hold up the GPL, Creative Commons, or any licensing option other than the public domain as an alternative to copyright are expressing a preference for allowing creators to exert some control, however small, over how their work is used and distributed. But if you abolish copyright, you take away even that small element of control.

Now we can argue until we're blue in the face over the details of what copyright should allow and should not. The extension of copyright terms, the constant chipping away at the doctrine of Fair Use, the evils of DRM... these can all be cited as things that are wrong with current copyright law and things that need to be abolished. But that's reforming copyright, not abolishing it. It's surgery on the patient, not euthanasia.

If you support the GPL, support an author's right to dictate any terms regarding how their work is used, then you support the concept of copyright even if you don't support the current law and practice of copyright. Then the argument becomes not whether copyright should be abolished, but what form it should take. In short, we've established what kind of girl you are. Now we're just haggling over the price.

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71 Responses to “Should Copyright Be Abolished?”
  1. Karl Fogel says:

    Greg, you probably know already this, but just in case: I wrote a rebuttal at http://www.questioncopyright.org/copyright_and_open_source, and it ran on Slashdot the next day. I'd be interested to hear your reaction.

    -Karl

  2. [...] Karl Fogel posted a thoughtful and calm response to my essay, "Should Copyright Be Abolished?" and invited my reaction. So here goes... [...]

  3. [...] So why am I bringing this up? Well, there was a recent debate that started on Slashdot between two individuals on the question of whether the GPL depends on copyright in order to oppose copyright. The debate started with with a post arguing that the GPL depends on copyright. Someone wrote a responsedisagreeing with that position, and the original poster responded to that. The debate is interesting, mostly because it’s one issue that I actually find myself in agreement with the GPL advocate! [...]

  4. Philosophically, everyone seems to be focused on maximizing social good. Perhaps I'm a bit of an anarchist, but I'm not sure social good is good at all. Social good largely seems responsible for a police state in which only some works are allowed to exist, for normalizing everyone into exactly the same modes of behavior (it's kind of depressing how similarly most people behave), and for making people be adult and focused on creation of wealth and social goods as opposed to childish and focused on being carefree and having fun. Perhaps I just like people who are free spirits, and I find all the policing and narrow game-theoretic "rational" games of increasing each person's personal wealth rather abhorrent. But I've put Copyright on some of my stuff (though I don't profit from it), so I'm either undecided, or think that everyone should exploit the system while violating it to punish idiotic consumerist American behavior.

  5. OK, maybe I was just in a bad mood or depressed when I wrote the previous response. Not sure I actually think Copyright should be abolished. It's at least one of those longstanding questions that I'm unsure about.

  6. scott t says:

    if someone just released information or software to the public, how then could a company take that 'free' software and then 'legally' make the information unrepeatable or unfree?

    if the first someone still had the 'free' software they could just keep releasing their free software - and say i thought it up and im giving it away. no company could change that - or should ever be able to.

    im not so sure about the stealing work claim. if i pay for content (to some living being) -- and distribute the result of the 'work' to another -- they may think the residual from the 'work' sucks -- and chastise me for sharing such garbage and experience a period if dismay -- on the other hand, they may say what a neato (variety of expression) where can i find out more?
    then they may pay for additional content to the content provider.
    if many decided to not give money for content then i guess much of the content people enjoy would diminish.
    and they would turn to feeding squirrels or something.

    when opera browser was in the 3.somethings i paid around 15 bucks or so for it. later versions had the ad banner which i downloaded for 'free' but paid for their webmail service. now..at least it seems its a free download -- i dont know how opera gets money.

  7. Allerious says:

    "Would that theft of your work act as a disincentive to creating more works?"

    Since the "work" in question is merely an idea, rather than physical property, nothing is being stolen and no theft has occured.

    There is absolutely, positively, no such thing as "intellectual property".

    There is not a single invention in the history of the world that wasn't created without borrowing and building upon existing ideas.

    Stop this nonsense. Just cut it out. The whole thing needs to go.

  8. BKY says:

    The GPL does depend on copyright, but go and ask someone who uses it - I dare you. They do not use it because they have conflicting positions or are hypocritical; it is used as a clever hack of the current copyright system to better simulate the lack of copyright. Since it is obvious that public opinion isn't going to change against copyright, that is the most realistic way of handling the situation.

    If GPL code were public domain, what would stop MajorCorp from using it in their product, and subsequently suing anyone who pirated or otherwise used MajorCorp's program, built on code they never created? Without copyright, I would not have the moral dilemma of having assisted MajorCorp in possibly ruining people's lives, nor would MajorCorp have any recourse if i were to reverse engineer their implementation of my code so that I could return their changes to the public.

    Without copyright, the GPL is not NEEDED. Unlike many licenses, it was not created to serve content creator's wallets. It was created to serve all of humanity. Copyright was intended to do the same - it has failed. if the GPL can make it work a little bit, until the public finally wakes up and calls for it's rightful abolition, then so be it.

    And hey, if the GPL and other copyleft licenses become common place, we may not even need to make any massive political change. The market will have evolved past needing that.

    Freedom is the future, and only those who have nothing to contribute fear it.

  9. sharperguy says:

    "You create some cool open source app. Then some megacorporation comes along, removes all your claims of credit, adds 10% more code, compiles it, and distributes the executable binary locked up in DRM"

    You're argument fails to realise that DRM really doesn't work too well and will usually be broken quite quickly. At that point the "mega corporation" has no defence against the sharing of the file.

    Without copyright, this form of software "selling" will not be commercially viable and I believe that in the long run this means that the software/development as a service model will have to be used as the main source of income for developers.

    This model actually encourages open source models of development as they are generally more reliable (peer review) and provide better value to the customer.

  10. Richard says:

    Funny. Copyright law has only been around for 300 years (first appeared 1709 in Britain). What did they do before its invention? The whole notation was based on greed...

    Imagine if the writers of the Bible slapped a copyright on their letters... we wouldn't have the Bible as we have it today. In 1st century their letters were freely copied and circulated...and even translated into numerous languages from 1st century til 3rd century (until Catholic church put a stop to further translations and locked the Bible up for a 1000 years and left it languishing within the Latin language). Then gasp! imagine if Gutenburg would have been sued for printing the Bible (in the 1450s) for the first time... There was no copyright law at his time... imagine if that happened we wouldn't be using computers now in 21st century.... go figure...

    Copyright law basically hinders the spread and distribution of knowledge and technology. It only exists to put money in the coffers of the rich.

    • Greg Bulmash says:

      The bible as we know it now was composed at the Council of Nicea around 700 AD. Even under our currently overreaching copyright laws, all the books of the bible would have been in the public domain by then. And again, even if the Catholic church claimed a sui generis copyright on the anthology created at the Council of Nicea, it would have expired and become public domain by the time Gutenberg came along with his press or King James came along with his translators.

      In fact, it was Gutenberg who made copyright necessary. Before the printing press, books were hand copied by scribes. They were incredibly laborious to produce and only available to the very wealthy. The printing press made publishing a viable industry. As presses became more efficient, more people were encouraged to write materials to be printed, but those who invested in the creation of works demanded protections so competitors who spent nothing on creation couldn't merely copy the works they paid to create or buy and undercut them because they didn't have the costs associated with creating the works.

      Eventually, as we became able to copy images and sounds as efficiently, copyright law grew to encompass those. Under your idyllic anarchy, all the white singers who re-recorded the work of black songwriters in the 1950s would never have had any obligation to pay them. Because of the racism in America at the time, many black artists' recordings were relegated to a sort of cult status. Many DJs wouldn't play them, record stores wouldn't sell them, and labels with the marketing muscle to distribute hit records wouldn't sign them. Then along come guys like Elvis and Pat Boone, getting all the airplay and shelf space the black artists couldn't, and they were singing the black artists' songs. Would you say that they owed something to those black artists... morally? Ethically? If the law hadn't forced the issue, do you think their record companies or managers would have paid them a dime.

      In fact, why would any recording company have invested the money in studios, engineers, and backing musicians to record anything if a competitor could just make copies of the record without paying any of the costs associated with producing it? Copyright creates a profit motive to inspire the production of intellectual works.

      In the old days, a copyright lasted a handful of years before a work entered the public domain. It gave creators and distributors a chance to profit from their works, but not to milk them for decades and decades. Now it's the life of the creator plus 75 years, and now that the supreme court has ruled corporations are technically people, we could see legal arguments stating that so long as the corporation that registered a copyright exists, the copyright remains in effect. And since our government is just a bunch of greedy sycophants, willing to sell their souls for campaign donations, copyright reform will never happen and eventually, the public domain will disappear.

      Copyright was a good thing, but it has been corrupted by corporations and their sock puppets in government. We don't need to get rid of copyright, we need to fix it. Those are two very different things.

  11. Peter says:

    Copyright is morally wrong.
    Anything, and I mean anything anyone has is because it was given to him/her.
    And to claim copyright because you've made something from what was given isn't because that person has done something on their very own.
    The driving force for copyright is money. Bunch of greedy self serving blah blah blah.

    Indeed, "How hard it is for the rich...."

    Peter

    • Greg Bulmash says:

      You only think Copyright is only morally wrong because you want to benefit from the hard work of others without having to pay for that work. If someone spends months making a song or a comic book, why shouldn't they be able to have an exclusive right to sell it for a period of time? You pay the baker for bread, and consider taking his loaves without payment to be theft. But if someone makes a good that can be digitally reproduced, despite spending years training in how to do it and months in making it, you believe they're immoral if they expect you to show the same respect for their work as you do for a baker's.

      That's not to say they should retain copyright for 150 years or use DRM and EULAs to wrap their product up in contractual terms and encryption that destroy the concept of fair use.

      Copyright, in theory, is not immoral. But in practice, it's broken.

      • Peter says:

        Luke 12:15
        And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.

      • Greg Bulmash says:

        Peter,

        Coveting is being jealous of another's possessions, not protecting your own possessions from theft. While some big corporations make millions from copyright, a lot of smaller artists make a meager living from licensing their works, and it is that living that allows them the time to create works. This is the original purpose of copyright laws; not to encourage movie studios to make summer blockbusters, but to encourage guys like me to write books and create cool stuff.

        Why would I spend years writing a novel if the moment I published it, some yutz could start making copies without giving me a penny or even credit for my work? Why would I write it and try to sell it if anyone with more marketing muscle and higher economies of scale could issue their own edition of my book and compete with me for sales, undercutting me on price? Seriously, I'd like to know why you think I'd work for years on something just to have the economic value of it stolen from me. I'd be better off spending that time on a second job as an accountant or something.

        Exodus 20:15
        Thou shalt not steal

      • Peter says:

        Greg,

        covet:
        1 : to wish for earnestly
        2 : to desire (what belongs to another) inordinately or culpably
        intransitive verb
        : to feel inordinate desire for what belongs to another

        I'd say the reason you would spend years writing a novel is to make money from it by copyright, thereby making merchandise of your fellow man.

        The other reason someone would spend years writing a novel is for personal satisfaction or to share with humanity for the love one has for others.

        Stealing is wrong, however this is more important.

        Mar 12:28 One of the teachers of the Law of Moses came up while Jesus and the Sadducees were arguing. When he heard Jesus give a good answer, he asked him, "What is the most important commandment?"
        Mar 12:29 Jesus answered, "The most important one says: 'People of Israel, you have only one Lord and God.
        Mar 12:30 You must love him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.'
        Mar 12:31 The second most important commandment says: 'Love others as much as you love yourself.' No other commandment is more important than these."

        Copyright is morally wrong.

        I'd suggest if you have copyrighted stuff is to get rid of it, I suspect on the big day when the books are opened, you don't want your name attached to a copyright, I think it'll be testimony against you.

        Given the world is so dependant on survival by making money, it's hard to wrap ones brain around loving others as yourself.

        Act 2:44 And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
        Act 2:45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.

      • Greg Bulmash says:

        Peter,

        First, you make the bigoted assumption that I am a Christian or that the words of Christ or his followers hold any special value for me.

        Second, a communal paradise where everyone works for the good of the group, never takes more than they need, always shares what they make... It's never worked long term. Ever. Study the history of attempts at utopian societies. Whether on the small scale of a little commune or on a national scale... THEY. NEVER. WORK.

        Third, I am not a communist, I am not a Christian, I have children to feed, and I refute your moral arguments as the immature and unrealistic rantings of a young idealist who has yet to have experienced enough of the the real world to get them beaten out of him.

      • Peter says:

        Let's see if I've got that picture.

        First: I'll assume you were born into this world.

        From the get go you received a universe to grow up in. (Bigger than you can fathom)
        This supplied universe had a solar system which (from my perspective) had two major components, a sun and a planet.

        As an individual occupying space on this planet, at no charge to yourself, received air to breath, sunshine to enjoy.

        As a baby you were kept, fed and protected hopefully in a loving way without having to pay.

        More than likely, you were given eyes to see with, ears to hear with, touch to feel with and a tongue to taste with.

        By some unknown ingenious stroke of craftsmanship you were able to perceive, learn articulate thoughts and ideas intermingled together with moral standards.

        And again, by some stroke of magnificence, this delicate setup was maintained and altered for an extended period of years.

        Then at some point in time, you in this grand and complex and elaborate setup produced something and copyrighted it, claiming special status as your own to which you hope to acquire rewards.

        Now, in light of what's happen all around you since you were born, don't you think that copyright thing is being a little self serving and too much "me"?

      • Greg Bulmash says:

        Peter,

        Provide a workable alternative. Don't give me a pie-in-the-sky alternative that only works in a perfect world where everyone acts the way you think they should, but a real alternative to copyright that works in the real world, accounting for the real ways people behave. Give me an alternative that allows creators to be fairly compensated for the quality and consumption of their work and to make a living from intellectual/artistic pursuits that produce works such as novels, songs, essays, etc.

        Do it or STFU. I'm tired of your mental masturbation.

  12. [...] Should Copyright be abolished? An article from a person who gives there opinion on whether copyright should be abolished or not: http://www.brainhandles.com/techno-thoughts/technology-life/should-copyright-be-abolished [...]

  13. Jay Estux says:

    If you read gpl properly it aims to remove any constraints for use I.E if you own a copy you can sell it change it use the source code have total freedom. What it restricts is that if you distribute it you cannot impose your own copyright laws, in other words you have to give the recipient the same freedom you got.

    Now about the megacorporation theft, I would write a program for the purpose of having some use and posiibly helping someone, NOT FOR THE MONEY, PRIDE, GLORY OR FAME. People will know which the original software is if it was useful and will know the corporate version. Yes I will continue to write software.

    Another Note. Barely any of the proffit of a megacorporation e.g. EA GAMES goes to the developers. Most of it goes to the CEO's, Shareholders and the big bosses so they can buy an island.

    I believe copyright should be destroyed. If it is absolutely nessesary I would replace copyright with aknowledgement which states you should aknowledge the original author.

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