Politics and Whatnot

Just another liberal political blog

Steal this post – SOPA, copyright law, the Constitution, and the ethics of piracy.

Logo of Pirate Parties International

Today is “Internet Censorship Day”, the day the House of Representatives debates SOPA, an act that is probably going to pass and will cause the death of the free internet, enabling the automatic censorship of offending websites.

Don’t expect the mainstream media to give you a fair view of the issues, because almost all television news broadcasters are owned by companies that directly or indirectly lobbied for this bill. I’ll leave it to the linked article above to point out why this is wrong.  What I’ll do is add a little bit about what SOPA is supposed to be protecting, and why media piracy is morally justified (not that you have to believe this to see why SOPA is wrong – again, see the above article, which points out how legitimate sites will be the primary victims).

SOPA is a “by any means necessary” approach to protecting intellectual property, which has become one of the most unanimously-revered topics among the two parties that control every federal, state, and local branch of our government.  But intellectual property hasn’t always enjoyed such unyielding protection in the US.

The Constitution allows Congress to create intellectual property like copyrights and patents to promote science and the arts, but only for a limited term:

“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.”

This “limited Times” provision originated from a debate over whether copyrights should be perpetual or for a limited term. Clearly, the Founding Fathers were of the belief that a limited term copyright was better.  From Wikipedia:

“Opponents of perpetual copyright argued that it amounted to a monopoly, which inflated the price of books, making them less affordable and therefore prevented the spread of the Enlightenment. “

“Prevented the spread of the Enlightenment”, remember that.

At the time the Constitution was written, copyrights were for 14 years in England and the Founding Fathers probably assumed the US would have a similar law.  And indeed, they did have a similar law – the first US Copyrights, created in 1790, lasted for 14 years with a possible single 14 year renewal if the author requested it while alive, just like in England.  But then Noah Webster, famous for his dictionary, lobbied to extend it to 28 years plus 14 years, and this was done in 1831.  In 1908, the extension grew to 28 years, for a total possible duration of 56 years.  Then, in 1976, the rise of large conglomerate-owned media with powerful lobbyists caused all hell to break loose – copyright was extended to the life of the author plus 50 years, or if created by a corporate or anonymous entity, 75 years.  Since most authors create their most popular works around their 20s and 30s and then live a good while afterwards, this had the effect of almost doubling the maximum and almost quadrupling the minimum copyright period for most authors.  As if that weren’t enough, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended copyrights to life + 70 years for authors and made the corporate term 95 to 120 years. For those keeping track, assuming an author lives 50 years after creating a work, the current copyright is 4 times longer than that existing in 1790.

Now think about that for a minute.  Perpetual copyrights are wrong.  Perpetual copyrights prevent the spread of enlightenment.   And 100+ year copyrights don’t? 100 years after a work is created, the time for enlightenment is over.  The ideas have gotten out there, had their time, and been superseded by other, better ideas.  Who’s going to care about my post on Joe Paterno’s sex scandal when the copyright term ends sometime in the 22nd century?  Who’s going to be listening to Rihanna’s latest hit?  Who’s going to be playing the latest Call of Duty game? Who’s going to be watching…(trying to think of a movie that’s out) Tower Heist at that time?  What is the practical difference between a copyright that far outlives a work’s author and a perpetual copyright?

And moreover, given the rapid obsolescence of today’s media and the expanded benefits from copying and collaboration, copyright terms should be getting shorter, not longer.  So much of today’s media is blogs and news stories that are relevant (and produce the vast majority of their income) for a few days, but copyrighted for a near eternity.  Software creates the opportunity to build on old source code to create new works that get better with each generation and can greatly advance the betterment of mankind.  Problem is, every program ever made since the dawn of computing, even the ones that only ran on computers that aren’t used anymore, falls within the current copyright term (public domain and open-source software excepted).  How does that “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”?  Five years is clearly more than enough to protect most profits that are made on modern software.  Instead, these lengthy terms put a price on progress that goes to the benefit of excessive greed. In fact, many companies, particularly in software, abuse copyrights to establish domination over a market and stifle competition.  In short, these copyrights “prevent the spread of the Enlightenment.”

That’s why piracy is morally justified.  Copyright law is out of control.  The modern copyrights are not against the letter, but clearly against the spirit of the Constitution.  They are not designed to promote science or the practical arts, but to promote greed and the suppression of competition.  So by all means, if you can improve progress and expand enlightenment, but a copyright is all that stands in your way, please improve progress and expand enlightenment anyway.  The Founding Fathers want you to.  Ok, give the author a week or two to profit, but then please do proceed to pirate whatever you need to pirate.  Be careful, and as anonymous as possible.

This is coming from someone in the act of creating an internet post that will probably be copyrighted for 95 years, assuming I’m considered anonymous and the copyright isn’t extended further (which is unlikely, given history).  That’s right, sometime in the year 2105, some cyber-archaeologist will uncover this post, and consider publishing it as an example of the inane leisure activities of early 21st Century Americans.  He’ll take a gondola through the streets of Lower Manhattan to talk to his copyright lawyer, who’ll say, “nope, still another year left.”*

*If you want to copy this post and put it elsewhere, go ahead, it’s not like I’m making any money off it.

EDIT (11/17): I apparently linked to the wrong SOPA article – instead of the well-written attack on SOPA, readers may have gotten a poorly-written CNN article.  It’s fixed now.

EDIT  (12/21) Sign this petition too.


One response to “Steal this post – SOPA, copyright law, the Constitution, and the ethics of piracy.

  1. Pingback: The White House finally responds to anti-SOPA petition « Politics and Whatnot

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