[OT] Copyright [was Re: Python obfuscation]

Steven D'Aprano steve at REMOVETHIScyber.com.au
Sun Nov 13 02:32:46 CET 2005

On Fri, 11 Nov 2005 23:22:45 -0800, The Eternal Squire wrote:

> Without copyright, how could one possibly earn a living writing a
> novel?  

I don't know. How did William Shakespeare make a living from writing plays
and sonnets and poems? How did Sir Walter Scott make a living from writing
novels? How do chefs make a living from creating new recipes, and stand-up
comedians from telling jokes?

Perhaps there is no way to make a living from writing novels without
copyright. There is no way to make a living from playing solitaire either
-- should the government pass a law giving a legal monopoly on playing red
queen on a black king to my granny, so that everyone playing that move
has to pay her ten cents? That would make her old age so much more
comfortable. If you object to my proposal, I can ask "But without it, how
could one possibly make a living playing solitaire?"

Do we care if novelists can make a living writing novels? Most of them
don't anyway. The Stephen Kings, Tom Clancys and J.K. Rowlings are the
exception, not the rule -- for every Terry Pratchett who has "had to
change banks because [he] filled the first one up", there are a hundred
thousand who never make a living from writing at all.

If you've been involved in writing novels, you will know that the real
difference between an interesting idea and a great novel is usually a good
editor. A good editor does maybe a quarter or a third of the intellectual
labour of creating a novel -- not the grunt work of hitting typewriter
keys and putting ink to paper, but the brain work of making sure that the
story actually tells a story well. Why should the author get the monopoly
and the editor nothing? How do editors make money without a monopoly
granted by the government like copyright?

How do magazine and newspaper writers make a living when they don't get
the copyright on the things they write?

These are all important questions, and you will notice I deliberately am
not giving answers -- but they are also irrelevant because I didn't say
that I was against copyright. What I asked was why the artificial rights
of creators are given more importance than the natural rights of users.

> And I submit that many ISD's are only a single person burning
> with that one software idea of a lifetime, the equivalent of the Great
> American Novel.

If their "one software idea of a lifetime" is as pointless, useless and
just *bad* as the average would-be "Great American Novel", then copyright
or no copyright nobody will want their poxy code. Sourceforge is full of
software projects, 90% of which go nowhere. The world is filled with
millions of wanna-be poets, writers and creators whose sum total
contribution to the artistic wealth of the world is negative. 

I'm not just using hyperbole. By poisoning the well with their garbage,
they just make it that little bit harder for genuinely talented artists to
be heard. Only 2% of books sell more than 5,000 copies, ever, and many
wonderful books never get a second print-run because they just can't get
people's attention.

Despite this, people keep trying to write the Great American Novel.
Creative artists will create, even if they would be economically better
off washing dishes at Greasy Joe's Diner for a buck an hour. Michaelangelo
didn't stop painting because he had no copyright protection.

> Are we to punish that impulse by denying that person
> a legal monopoly on that idea?

Who's talking about *punishment*?

The natural state of things is not copyright. "No copyright" is not
punishing the author any more than "no flying unicorns" is punishing
little girls with a fantasy for flying through the sky on the back of a
horned horse. It is just the way things are.

Copyright is a gift granted by the government, not the natural state of
the world. When kings and emperors and presidents give commercial and
economic gifts, like monopolies, they rarely are for the benefit of the

Lots of ideas have no legal monopoly. There is no legal monopoly on (say)
good gardening skills, or the specific way of mixing the batter to make
extra light and fluffy bread. Why should some ideas be privileged over

Lack of copyright doesn't need to be defended, as it is the natural state
of the world. Copyright is the special state which needs to be defended,
and there is precious little evidence that copyright makes sense
economically for *anyone*, author, publisher, readers or society as a

That's not to say that copyright isn't good for one or more of the above:
I have my intuitions as to who copyright benefits. But my point is that
there is a serious lack of evidence one way or the other, and what
evidence there is suggests strongly that over-strong copyright laws (like
we have now) are bad for *everyone*, and that weaker copyright (as in the
early 20th century) would be better.

> I believe piracy is bad for everyone:  the consumer, the writer, and
> the country as a whole.  I don't oppose copyleft, but then, I don't
> oppose copyright either.  Let's distribute the former for free, and
> honor the need for the writer of the latter to earn a living.

Who mentioned copyleft? Copyleft is just a version of copyright: instead
of "All Rights Reserved", copyleft gives the user additional rights they
may not have got otherwise. Copyleft is not opposed to copyright, it _is_
copyright (despite the cute name).

In any case, piracy is demonstrably *not* bad for everyone. The entire US
movie industry would not exist if not for patent infringement: the baby
industry was being choked out of existence by the high royalties and
licence fees demanded by the holders of Thomas Edison's patents, until
they fled to California where enforcement was lax.

Likewise radio, which got its start from unauthorized transmission of
music, what we would call "piracy". The US government recognised that
"piracy = theft" was just propaganda, and legislated to give the radio
stations a compulsory licence rather than shut them down.

Likewise cable TV, which got its start from outright theft of transmitted
signals: in 1972 Jack Valenti of the MPAA testified to the American
Congress that the cable TV industry would destroy the movie industry
utter, and described cable TV as a parasite. Congress didn't swallow
it, and thirty years later both Hollywood and cable TV are thriving.

Having got it his first prediction that the sky is falling so badly wrong,
Valenti tried again ten years later, when he testified that the personal
home VCR would destroy the American movie industry -- he described it as
being to the American public and the movie industry as the Boston
Strangler was to women living alone. Instead, the VCR saved Hollywood
from collapse, with cheap direct-to-video movies now their
bread-and-butter, making up for all those big budget flops.

Going for three failures from three, now Valenti is campaigning against
peer-to-peer and the Internet.

Talking of outright theft, no discussion of monopoly rights is complete
without mentioning the record labels' habit of outright theft of ownership
from the artists who actually create music. It churns my stomach to see
thieves and con artists like the RIAA trying to take the moral high ground
with talk of "copying is theft".

Closer to home for the software industry, it is well recognised that
for software companies starting out, they get more benefit from
copyright infringement than they lose in revenue. Windows is the perfect,
if extreme, example: by turning a blind eye to piracy, Microsoft made sure
that anyone who wanted Windows could get it. That in turn meant that
programmers entering the workforce were already programming for Windows,
that businesses were demanding software that run under Windows, that
hardware manufacturers were supporting Windows.

Even today, Microsoft has a dilemma in China and South East Asia -- they
have a monopoly on Windows, but revenue is low because piracy rates are
extraordinarily high. But they don't dare get too strict on stamping out
piracy, because the last thing they want is to drive the billions of
actual or potential computer users of Asia to Linux -- Microsoft wants
hardware suppliers to support Windows first and Linux not at all or at
least as just an afterthought, not the other way around. Microsoft needs
software companies and consultants and programmers to work in the Windows
space, not Linux.

This means that, paradoxically, companies that work in the Linux space
actually want Microsoft to stamp down harder on piracy than Microsoft
wants to. We want more Ernie Balls:


As Microsoft knows, piracy is effectively giving your product away for
free. Can you think of any reason why you would want to give your product
away for free? Promotions, network effects, "the first sample is free",
driving your competitors out of business, try before you buy, software
which is paid for by advertising... there are many reasons why companies
might not just turn a blind eye to piracy but welcome it. The mistake is
to only think of piracy as lost revenue.


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