Friday, February 6, 2015

An Unexpected Utopia

Imagine a world where people give and take things freely, not demanding anything in return.  Imagine that you can walk outside, go anywhere, and recieve any type of good or service available, without owning or paying a cent.  Imagine that every person, rich or poor, could have anything they could possibly imagine.

This may sound like an unrealistic or far off ideal, but what if I told you it was not?  What if I told you that this kind of world took almost no effort to create, that in fact, we live in such a world already, all we have to do is realize it?!!

So what's the secret?

The secret is that information is naturally free to copy.

When it comes to physical goods, this type of free exchange is merely an idealistic fantasy.  But for information, the utopia is already here!  Information has never been more readily available, easier to create or easier to recieve.

I want to talk about copyright law.  I want to talk about patent law.  But in doing so, I don't want us to get hung up on these tiny details.  A world of free and bountiful information is already here.  Let's not forget what we have by focusing on what we don't have.

In the midst of such a utopian vision, intellectual property can look fairly petty.  We are so close to a beautiful and perfect world, why are these backwards thinking people insisting on holding on to an old, broken system?

But it's not so simple.  Information utopia may not be that far off, but a physical economy utopia is a long way from reality.  Worst case, it may never be practical.

In the absence of a universal utopia, the reluctance to embrace an information utopia is understandable.  Exchanging information may be practically free already, but creating it is not.  Individuals and companies use vast amounts of resources to conduct research or create media.  Expecting them to embrace a different vision for how information fundamentally works should not be done lightly.

But it needs to be done.

In the future, controlling the distribution of information will only become more and more costly, while the exchange of information becomes even cheaper and easier.

If this cost were only a monetary price tag, it might be justifiable.  It would certainly be expensive, but it might be justifiable.  But the cost is not merely monetary.  We pay the costs of intellectual property enforcement in many forms.  This includes personal freedoms.  It also dilutes and compromises the role of government, by committing us to policies that are unsustainable and counterproductive in the long run.

Let's look at the pirate bay.  Piracy is a clever and catchy term to describe copyright infringement.  In reality, the comparison to actual piracy is bit of a stretch.  But the pirate bay decided to embrace this term instead of rejecting it.

In doing so, they were effectively communicating a commitment to a course of action, that was independent of what the law said.  They became models of the principle of civil disobedience.

It is clear that the pirate bay website facilitated the infringement of US copyright laws.  Millions of people used that site across the world to help them download copyrighted media, including inside the US.

What is not so clear is whether the pirate bay itself broke any swedish laws.  I'll refer you to two resources if you want to know the details of this case.  The pirate bay article on wikipedia has a section titled legal_issues.  There was also an interesting documentary that was created that tells much of the history of the site and more importantly what happened to its founders.  Search for "tpb afk".

What is clear from those sources is that the enforment practices used to attack the site and its founders were highly questionable and at times unethical.  The case appears to have been pursued with significant pressure from the United States justice department.

You may not agree with the actions of tpb or its founders.  Fair enough.  But the point of this example is to highlight the challenges of copyright enforcement.  Tpb website was up and running before, during and after the trial.  The trial had no effect on the prevelance of copyright infringement.

The problem here is that copyright requires global enforcement.  And this enforcement is not possible without massive and intrussive surveillance, and other infringements into personal rights.  Are we ready to commit ourselves to a course of action that compromises our freedoms and helps perpetuate the surveillance state and government overreach?

Not all cultures and countries have the same attitudes and laws about intellectual property as our country.  Enforcing IP rules requires imposing our viewpoint on the rest of the world.  What if they are right and we are wrong?

What's my prescription?

I would actually like to recommend that people try to respect the wishes of authors of creative works regarding distribution and reproduction.  Being civil is important when you are trying to effect change.  In the words of one of my favorite philosophers: "Render unto ceaser, that which is ceaser's".  I don't think we need to buck against the commercial side of copyright law when it comes to entertainment media.

Having said that, I definitely feel that copyright enforcement is immoral, and impractical.  Thankfully, copyright law is hardly enforced beyond a domestic, commercial level.  Doing so would require unethical and irresponsible actions.  The exceptions to this enforcement pattern have demonstrated that.  The story of Aaron Swartz is a tragic example where malicious prosecution practices were used against someone who publicly put himself in the crosshairs by exercising civil disobedience on this matter.  He released a database of copyrighted scientific articles.  Aaron chose to end his life after rejecting a plea bargain, that, it could be argued, compromised due process by pressuring people to plea irregardless of guilt.

Aaron Swartz is a tragedy of the failings of public policy.  No one else made him kill himself, but that doesn't mean that the actions the justice department or the copyright holders are excusable.

A lot more can be said on this matter, but that is for another day.