Copyright Dichotomy

By | January 16, 2010

In the so-called “copyright wars,” we see a spectrum having the MPAA, RIAA, Jack Valenti, and “all rights reserved” on one side, with the Pirate Parties, Pirate Bay, Rick Falkvinge, and “no rights reserved” on the other side. In the middle, we have Creative Commons, Lawrence Lessig, and “some rights reserved”.

I’d like to momentarily expand this line to one that places “no rights reserved” in the middle, in a way that shifts Lessig closer to Valenti, and opens up a whole new area of creative exploration beyond the pirates, who are no longer extremists.

First, a disclaimer: I don’t claim to have any answers. I don’t even believe what I’m suggesting is the right path. I am simply suggesting an idea that frames a long-standing and long-term discussion in a different light.

The spectrum above defines the opposite of a right as “the absense of a right.” This only goes halfway. The opposite of a right is a responsibility.

Image, for a moment, a society where there is no such thing as, “the right to my creation,” but there is a massive, “responsibility to create.” In this society, people would have free access to all the materials of the world, all the patents, blueprints, and software, all the films, songs, and books, all the photos, paintings, and sketches the world has ever seen. In exchange for this free access, individuals would be required (responsible) to create a certain amount of new material every year. Some of this material would be innovative and fresh, some would be a new presentation of old stories and ideas, some of it would be interpretations of those old stories in new media. We’d see new designs for existing products, we’d see new products that merge old technologies. We’d see Android phones with iphone gestures, and we’d see Mickey Mouse saving Princess Peach from the evil Bowser the Hedgehog.

Such a world may excite some, bore others, and scare many. Would these same people be less excited, bored, or scared by the Pirate Party? by Creative Commons? Maybe those deals aren’t so bad after all (to those demanding rights)… or maybe they aren’t so good (to the promoters of creativity).

This responsibility to create idea seems radical in the context of entertainment media, but it is not new. It’s a long-standing scientific tradition, best encompassed by Newton’s overused quote about giants. Academics have “free” access to the entire compendium of academic knowledge; in exchange for this access, they are expected (responsible) to generate new ideas and innovations. Some are good and some are bad, but if a scientist neglects to publish a few new papers a year, they fade from the academic community.

This idea is also an unofficial motivator in open source communities. Within the Arch Linux community, my home, I’ve made some effort recently to verbalize this norm. The story goes thus: Arch Linux has had contributions from many thousands of users. Each of us that uses the distribution is somehow indebted to all those other users. Further, we can never, as individuals, pay off the debt in its entirety. Even the well-known user with 8000 posts on the forum, thousands of package updates to his name, and dozens of Arch Linux tools under his belt has contributed but a drop in the bucket compared to the efforts of the entire community. And Aaron is aware of this debt. So should we all be.

Yes, in the academic and open source world, the implied responsibility to create is known to work. Creativity in both worlds spreads more quickly than anywhere else. Compare to the communities creating ideas whose soul purpose is entertainment. Even the liberated Jamendo is mired way over in the (Some) Rights Reserved end of the scale.

6 thoughts on “Copyright Dichotomy

  1. Changaco

    « The opposite of a right is a responsibility. »
    I don’t think that « opposite » is the right term.

    I think that what you’re proposing is to suppress everything that allows people to live of rents, because if you can’t live of what you created in the past you must create again and again.

  2. next_ghost

    @Changaco: I think you’re too focused on Creative Commons/Pirate Party point of view and you’ve missed the point of this article. It’s not about rents for a handful of commercially successful copyright owners. It’s about how lots and lots of tiny contributions from the entire community can be far more important than contribution of any single person no matter how big that contribution is. The point is that community should not separate into creators and passive consumers but everybody should contribute as much as they can.

  3. Yeti

    What you suggest precludes modesty perhaps even more than the current state. The (an?) opposite of both RIAA-style schemes and your hypothetical society is a society where modesty and responsibility are valued.

    To the practical examples. Indeed it can be seen well in the academia where this leads to. The pressure to publish is immense and all kinds of crap and petty results are published because everyone has to publish, publish and publish more as the evaluation criteria cause positive feedback (note I work in the academia). Open source might work somewhat better because there is no external pressure and the irresponsible production of rubbish is fuelled just by inflated egos OTOH there is rarely any review at all.

    Our problem is the lack of focus and quality; forcing people to create — yes, forcing, you avoid this word but it is what you talk about — does not solve it.

  4. dusty


    I was hoping someone would pick up on that. The suggested society would require a sort of ‘income tax’ system that would force (yes, exactly: force) us all to prove that we’ve created our quota for the year. This would be a huge invasion of privacy, as bad as that required to enforce proper copyright protection.

    My goal was to place the Pirate Parties in the middle of the discussion. They aren’t a bunch of extremists. They’re trying to protect our privacy by keeping a balance far from not one, but two (probably more) possible big brother scenarios.

    I never said I liked what I am proposing. I don’t like what the major entertainment associations are lobbying for either.

  5. Petr Břeň

    I think it’s not a bad idea. Expanding civic duties to include creativity in connection with abolishing the copyright will make people realize that their culture is something that comes from the whole society and not from just a few individuals who must be paid for it.
    Of course, people would be allowed to refuse to participate on that. It would be similar to countries like Belgium where participation in elections is mandatory. You don’t have to vote for one of the parties. You may throw a black ballot into the ballot box, indicating that you don’t support any of the parties. You just have to care and can’t stay at home. So in our case, people would just formally declare that they don’t want to create anything.. the particular form is not important at this moment.

  6. Changaco

    From my point of view there are two things that stop innovation, copyrights/patents/etc and the fact that what you create must be economically profitable at some point if you want food on your table.

    The first problem is the one that the Pirate Parties are fighting. A very « simple » problem with existing solutions.
    The second problem is fought by the basic income, unfortunately this is much more complicated to put in practice than a reform of copyright laws.

    @dusty: The thing is, you can’t force people to do anything, at least not in the long run. OTOH, you can encourage people to do something.

    @next_ghost: I think you’re too focused on software, you speak of community, I speak of society.


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