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Copyright's Forward Flaw

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This is the second of a few articles I submitted to Greplaw over the last couple of years. I am planning on revising the whole set based on the comments I got from that discussion. There were many useful ones. This article is the middle of the three that were not transitory in nature. This article was originally posted on Monday August 04, 2003.

This article has to do with a curious observation I made about the Internet and email a couple of years ago. It has to do with whether creativity needs incentives at all.
We all receive forwards in our inboxes, but thought into their legal importance is rarely given. The existence of forwards and their volume may be an example of a large flaw in the reasoning that gave rise to the existence of copyright laws around the world. Read on for the argument... I have not looked at forwards for a long time. They are an evil part of email that is only slightly less annoying than spam. If one tries to read them, however, forwards are easily exponentially more time consuming than that other variety of email that is being so heavily assaulted by angry Net users around the world. I decided in college that I could get no work done if I took the time to read even one forward a week. As a result, I started putting forwards in a special folder and never looking at them again. I instructed all of my friends not to send me forwards, and for a while anyway, none of them did.

As recently as a few months ago, though, something changed. No one had been sending me forwards, so I had long ago stopped having that "forwards" folder. But then one of my friends started sending me forwards again. They started piling up in my inbox, and I took fleeting glances at a few because they were just pictures. The irritating thing was, every time I checked my mail, I would be told I had something like 15 unopened messages, all of which were his forwards. Instead of deleting them or bothering to create a new folder (it is not like there were 100 or anything, and this particular individual only sends me ones he has actually read) this time, I figured I would open them all and return my unopened message count to zero. In the process, I was tempted to look at a few.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that forwards in themselves were a huge argument against a standard reason given for the purpose of copyright. The argument of which I am speaking is this:
Without copyright, no one would write anything. There would be no progress because people would have no incentive to write.
I always knew there was something wrong with this argument, but it is a hard one to beat. Why would anyone write for free? Why would someone spend time working hard on something just so they could give it away?

Obviously, there are more reasons than money to create something. I doubt if anybody who is an artist would say that they chose that field of employment for the money. Let's face it, if you want to be rich, you do not become an artist, you become a businessman or a lawyer. Most artists' parents are against their children's choice of employ and would rather their children chose something more likely to ensure their future finantial success. Copyright does nothing to mitigate these fears.

I wrote little haiku poems. I e-mailed them to everyone.
-- Fight Club

Enter forwards: These are a class of what many might call useless creativity. Witty jokes and anecdotes sent to just about everyone, created in the minds of who knows who from who knows where. Only one thing is certain: Whether you like them or not, these messages represent a great expenditure of time. They are sometimes quite interesting to read. But for every minute I spend reading them, there is probably some guy that spent an hour writing them (and I am only speaking of the text ones). Whether this person is waisting time at the office or wherever, no one will know because no one knows who this person is. All that is known is a fair amount of work, at least the amount of work that goes into a college essay and probably more, has been put out.

But how is this individual supposed to be compensated for this hard work? Will he gain recognition for his wit and humor? Will he even be able to claim he wrote it?

In this case, an individual will receive no compensation at all whatsoever for his work. The author is even denied recognition as the author of the work. And still I get these things... in several languages even when I ask my friends not to sent them to me.

There have to be millions of these messages out there in every conceivable language. If all these man hours are being spent writing anonymous messages, is it possible that people just write because they have something to say? Do we not talk for that reason? We certainly cannot copyright our speech as it exits our mouths, but still we waist (this is precisely as the content industries would imagine it because any incidence of language they cannot charge for is lost revenue to them) our breath.

Before I sum up, it should be noted that blogs fall into this category as well. Although people get recognition from blogs, they are rarely if ever monetarily compensated for their speech or ideas that they spend so much time maintaining. Why would they waist their time?

The answer can only be that people have something to say and they want someone, anyone to hear it. Sometimes it is worthwhile, and sometimes it is not (if someone wishes to make the argument that literature you pay for is better, that person had better go take a look in a bookstore because there is a lot of garbage that one can spend his hard earned cash on as well), but if people are given means to speak, they will. People will speak and write anonymously and for free (and indeed some prefer it that way). Given this, how can it be assumed that without monetary compensation people will not write? We have seen demonstrations of the incorrectness of this 300 year old English legal argument since we all started looking irritatedly at all the rapidly increasing inundation of anonymous forwards in our inboxes. Still, we buy this argument when it is fed to us by the very content industries who stand to gain from our belief in this idea.

Maybe it is time to stop swallowing and spit for once.

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