Several discussions have come up lately on various issues about intellectual property, stirring up the thoughts in my head. I've been hoping for some time to square up my own personal ethical position with respect to intellectual property rights so that I can guide my own actions appropriately. And right now, I'm inspired to muse a bit and see if I've come up with anything.
One of the major tangles of issues is the great ebook debate, most recently refreshed in my mind by Seanan's post about ARCs, which references Scalzi's rant about one form of eARCs, where the comments range over most of the issues of the whole ebook debate. Oh, and I'd nearly forgotten, but there was some general fuel for the fire in looking at some buzz about the soon to be available Kobo ereader, which will apparently be available for the revolutionary low price of $150. I'm not hugely interested in the special issues of advance copies, but I am intensely interested in the general issue of distributing and paying for books.
The other big tangle is the question of derivative works. My thoughts in this area, many of which are angry, were refreshed by a chat with my neighbor where we mutually ranted about how Monsanto abuses their patents by suing anyone who isn't buying their seed; a discussion in the filk community about licensing filks of commercial recordings; and some re-hashing of the question of fan fiction.
It might seem like these are two fairly separate issues, but I think it's worth tying them together. I think that feeling that I'm sure of my own ethical position in either one could help me tackle the other. My spitting hatred of the corporate policies in both areas certainly feeds together to make me less emotionally prepared to concede that the big corporate interests deserve any respect or remuneration. I think an overall understanding of what society owes content creators and what content creators owe society would enlighten my understanding both of what my friends should be able to do with characters from popular works and how much I should pay for an ebook.
Deciding for myself how those things should work won't, of course, cause the rest of society to fall in line, even if I do share my wisdom with the world. But it may help me to decide what I should do myself and the tone I should take when I rant at the world.
I'm going to refer to stories for the rest of this discussion just to simplify my sentences, but when I refer to stories henceforth, I mean poetry, music, visual art, and other forms of creativity as well. Creating and sharing stories is what makes us people. The stories we hold in common are what give us culture and society. We hold these things in common, not just by having them told to us in approved and sanctioned ways, but by telling them to each other and exchanging our thoughts about them. Culture and society only adapt and change to the extent that our stories do, so creating new stories is clearly fundamentally needed by society. Telling stories of our own is how we make ourselves into people. The stories we tell always borrow from the ones we heard before; even if someone were so inspired -- or so disconnected -- to be able to make a story that was totally new, it wouldn't make any sense to anyone else. But the new parts are what make our listeners remember us, and give us pride. From this, I derive the belief that both the right to borrow from others and the right to make our own new contributions are vital to the progress of culture and thus to being people.
If the world were somehow a perfect place, with no scarcity and no adversity, we could just sit around telling stories all the time. Of course, we'd quickly find that we need something to tell stories about, and something to push us to improve the stories, and we'd find ourselves violating the initial premise. Behold the paradox: I have proven that the world can't be perfect. And if the world is imperfect, if the supply of whatever is good is finite, we must become concerned about those who would take rather than giving. If some people are especially good at telling stories, we're all better off if they get to spend more time telling stories and less time making sure they can eat. So we come up with the brilliant idea of sharing some of what we have with the good story tellers, and also rewarding the good story tellers with our praise. And then along comes some jerk who listens to the good stories, and then repeats them, claiming they are his own, and eating the story teller's portion while the real story teller has to get a real job. So the idea of copyright is pretty basic.
I think, even in this vague handwaving idea of a primitive culture, I see the seeds of two different ideals of copyright. The maker of the story earns two different kinds of rewards -- the intangible, but nonetheless real and valuable, pride and respect for creating something that others like, and the tangible economic reward. I think we could really fix the mess we have with modern copyright if we could separate the two. As long as we can recognize the elements that we've borrowed and borrowed again and we honestly remember who we're borrowing from, we should continue to give credit to the original teller, even after they're dead. But you can only divide a bunch of bananas so far, and one monkey can only eat so many anyway. The economic interest in a copyright should be limited in time and should dilute fairly quickly as it's borrowed.
I find that it's getting late and I'm getting sleepy faster than I'm coming to real conclusions. I suppose I could save this off somewhere and work on it more later, but I think I'll post what I have now.