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Tyranny of Copyrights  
Jan 24th, 2004

Dr. John


A fascinating article by Robert Boynton at the New York Times discusses the burgeoning fight between copyright and copyleft. In what can almost be described as a reincarnation of the struggle between capitalism and socialism, a new struggle at the very core of societal structure, is emerging. How this struggle plays out over the next decade will affect not only our lives, but the lives of many future generations. 

In Thomas Jefferson's original conception of the copyright, we have Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority to ''promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.'' In the year 1790, copyright protection in the United States only lasted for 14 years, and could be renewed once before the work entered the public domain. Contrast this with the current state of affairs where copyrighted materials are protected for 75 years after the death of the author. For corporations, copyrighted works are protected for 95 years after publication. Does it seem, perhaps, like large corporations might have had something to do with the writing of this law?

Copyrights were never intended to protect for many decades large corporations who purchased copyrights from the original authors or inventors. However, that is exactly what is happening in thousands of litigations currently underway in the United States. In fact, the current legal actions between SCO group and IBM are a perfect example of how aging copyrights can be purchased by a company that had nothing to do with creating the original work, but then are used as litigation tools to extort money from other companies, and individuals. This was not Thomas Jefferson's, nor any of the founding father's original intent.

Copyleft, as opposed to copyright, dictates that persons who modify a particular work, such as making additions to Linux for example, must pass all rights to any recipients of that work. Further, none of the modifications can be patented, or if they are, then the patents must be licensed for everyone's free use.        

The way in which copyrights are being used now, for example the way music is being sold one song at a time on the Internet, is moving us ever closer towards a pay-per-service society where everything is copyrighted permanently, and we are charged micro-payments for every action we take. The development of Digital Rights Management, and its incorporation into every piece of computer hardware and software, is an inevitable move towards this end. Microsoft's Bill Gates would like more than anything to be the person in charge of fully digitizing and integrating micro-payments into our lives. Just like phone bills of days long gone, you’re debit card statement at the end of the month will be dozens of pages long.

As usual, its folks like you and me who are caught in the middle of this titanic struggle. So which side is right? Neither side can claim to have a fully desirable or workable model for the way in which intellectual property should be protected in a modern society. Intellectual property is not some unassailable edifice that must be protected perpetually until the end of time, nor should it be ignored as a driving force for enhancing creativity. But creativity comes from the heart, not from greed, so that is a relatively minor consideration. Nonetheless, rewarding people financially for a job well done is something that Western society has deemed extremely important, and there is no sign of this sentiment waning. As such, I propose a simple and workable solution. Lobby Congress to reduce, rather than extend, copyright protection in terms of years. 

In my mind, if the idea is to protect a creator or inventor of a particular piece of work, the 14 year time limit, with a single 14 year extension seems generous. Extending that to anything beyond 42 years ( 2 renewals), to me, smacks of greed. I think laws can also be written to prevent the kind of action that SCO is pursuing against IBM in particular, and Linux in general. SCO bought the rights to some old UNIX copyrights, and now is litigating against the entire world “to protect their intellectual property rights”. It is not their intellectual property. They merely purchased the rights to the copyrights. This kind of corporate extortion should not be allowed under US copyright law. We need to return the concept of copyright back to the idea of protecting inventors and creators, not to providing ammunition for litigation under some warped concept of intellectual property.

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Dr. John

CopyLeft 2004, KickAss Gear