What if…?

Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.

-often misattributed to Pablo Picasso.

The statement in a somewhat longer form originally came from this essay:

One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

Eliot, T.S., “Philip Massinger,” The Sacred Wood, New York: Bartleby.com, 2000. 

I discovered this because somebody wrote a post called Good Poets Borrow, Great Poets Steal… and took the time to research the quote and include the relevant snippet in their writing. And Bartleby’s allowed free access to that original essay.  That’s called fair use in the copyright world, to be able to take a snippet from someone else’s writing and put it into your own to illustrate a point. Artists have been doing it for centuries. So have forgers. So have print makers. What about that Salvador Dali print you had hanging in your dorm room in college? You probably couldn’t have afforded the original. So somebody pays a licensing fee and runs off a couple of million Dali prints (at least). Secondary spinoffs of original productions often make a lot more money than the originals do after they are first sold. Artists don’t actually get a share of profits of re-sales of originals. Picasso’s estate would be owed a bundle if that were the case.

That is not unlike the music or book publishing industry as well. The original creative item for the average musician or writer may sell enough copies to allow the creator to do further work if they’re lucky. The real money comes from the ancillary marketing efforts such as merchandising, concerts and appearances, secondary rights such as video games, movies and script options, translations, second and third editions in different formats such as paperback, feature articles, photo shoots for big publications and so forth. The spin off is potentially huge. And so are the profits. Unfortunately most artists and writers represented by the big publishers have had to give up a lot of these secondary rights in order to get signed under contract in the first place. Is it any wonder that these corporations are so protective of their real revenue stream?

This is much on my mind lately due to the SOPA protests going on in the US and around the world. If people outside the US think it doesn’t affect them, think again.

The purpose of the bill is allegedly to stop piracy. I personally don’t think piracy is a problem and that it’s far more of a benefit than a detriment to marketing of creative materials. Apparently I am not the only one that thinks like that. The huge tech publisher O’Reilly has written a great piece on why SOPA and it’s ilk are really bad for business and why they don’t chase pirates. O’Reilly Media – Stop SOPA BTW the pirating of tech books is probably higher than of any other kind of book if counts on torrent sites are any indication. Yet O’Reilly’s business has grown continually. Isn’t that interesting. I, like a lot of people who have worked in tech and information related fields have probably bought more then 50 O’Reilly tech books in my lifetime, still have a couple on the shelf, even though I am very aware of where I can download them. Sure quite a few of them were bought at Book Warehouse or the Half Price Computer book store when they were remaindered, which is the phase just before they are shredded. Yes book sellers and publishers shred what they can’t sell. How many dollars of “potential revenue” is that worth? Similar fates await old CDs, DVDs, merchandise and other “potential revenue” sources governed by the SOPA pushers.

So what is vociferously protected today with copyright violation hysteria is tomorrow’s garbage.

The question arose as to which blog I should put this piece on. I decided to put it here because I’ve addressed the issue of piracy at great length with a post here before; Steal This Book (or not) which was partly in response to the Shambhala Sun’s  post Digital dharma downloading: Is it sharing? Is it stealing?.

It would be interesting to know if any of the publishers of dharma material have ever shredded their own publications once they’ve gone out of print. I do know they send out an awful lot of review copies, for free, postage paid, because I have 2 books sitting beside me with another on the way.  They’d save a lot of money and staff time if they’d just ask those who will pirate the books to provide reviews on Amazon or elsewhere. They’d probably have a lot more reach than this blog (or any blog) as well.

And something else. If I review the book I will probably download a copy of it from somewhere if I can. Why? Because I don’t have time to retype all the paragraphs of quotes I might use in a review or an excerpt. I’d probably excerpt a lot more that way too. I am not a stenographer for the publisher.  It’s a lot more efficient to cut and paste for a review article, for which I am getting paid in the form of a free book which I may or may not have read had I seen it on a book store shelf, and which ultimately will become a shredded pile of paper at the end of its marketing life cycle. One publisher did start giving electronic copies. It requires so many logins and account setups that it was like I was trying to penetrate the Pentagon to get at the book. The book was then copy protected so I couldn’t cut and paste. To top it all off it was a time limited book, so it essentially deleted itself before I finished the review. So I deleted the review I had been working on and won’t review for them again. I can’t think of a way it could have been made more inconvenient.

What if?

One thing I’ve always enjoyed is playing with the “what if” idea. It’s the kind of thing trend trackers, futurists and science fiction writers make their living from and it’s an interesting exercise in that one has to look at both the past and present deeply in order to draw out whatever factors of plausibility might be available for a particular future scenario.

Since SOPA/PIPA and related bills in Europe, Australia, Canada and India (and elsewhere) are up in the news I want to address censorship and the whole idea of file sharing. When a law is overwritten and too broad it tends to become a catchall for lots of unrelated things. Consider the Patriot Act in the US, which bolsters Homeland Security, the TSA, Fusion centers and other draconian institutions.

The trouble with poorly written laws that have too much scope is that they generally tend to get pushed to their legal limits and then beyond them. The spirit of the law gets lost along with the letter of the law. People think they understand the intent of it and keep expanding their authority under those suppositions. Who knew the Patriot Act and it’s cousins would lead to old men getting their colostomy bags emptied out when they are trying to catch a plane to see their grand kids or that security agents would be groping the crotches of toddlers? Certainly not the Patriot Act law makers.

Here’s a few things that SOPA and it’s cousins could engender if we use our imaginations a little bit. And you can be sure corporations have people to do just that if it means an extra squeeze on the marketplace.

-banning re-tweeting on Twitter. Technically by re-tweeting you are using someone else’s content to bolster your Twitter status, retain or obtain followers, and possibly make money. If Twitter is part of a public persona that you maintain in any way related to commerce, your job or any money making endeavor you could be charged unless you have paid a licensing fee to each and every person you retweet.

-banning all sharing on social networks including Facebook, Google+, Diaspora and others. Same as the Twitter scenario

-banning about 80% of YouTube content due to minimal usage of songs, images or ideas that originated with someone other than you. Every photo, including an album cover scan, image of an artist, piece of a song, or even a single chord played in a way particular to a certain artist could at minimum get your account closed down.

-music lessons would be confined to the classics and public domain works. Your child may not learn to play Stairway to Heaven on the guitar in 8th grade without the proper paperwork or you and your children will be fined or imprisoned. And she certainly couldn’t sing a Lady Gaga song and get famous for it.

-closing your Flicker or other photo sharing account due to infringement.  If you take a picture of your kids and they have Disney logos on their clothes for example, that is grounds to close your account. If you post a video on Facebook of your kids watching TV, if any of the TV images are visible or the sound audible and identifiable, that is grounds to close your account.

-all links in any blog post you make must be checked thoroughly on the site they link to in order to insure that the linked site does not further link to material that might violate SOPA. I don’t just mean the post you link to but the entire site you link to. For example if you link to a story in the New York Times, you must examine every page of the NYT to insure they haven’t linked to anything related to piracy. Of course they can afford not to get shut down for it but can you?

– Wikileaks or anything like it will be prosecuted (as if it isn’t already!) All whistleblowers will have to write first hand accounts of events and will not be allowed to use any documents from the source. Hence all whistleblowing will die, because either said accounts are heresay according evidence rules in most courts and inadmissible or they will involve the 5th Amendment, that is the person will have to incriminate themselves as a participant to wrongdoing.

-public utterances, including speeches will no longer be available. What public figures, legislators, law makers say will become the property of various rights holders including those who provide the media on which it is recorded. They may decide to keep it out of reach completely or charge a fee for it’s access. This is happening already. It costs $10 to watch Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech.

-Fact checking will die. Any site that publishes or links to content ostensibly belonging to someone else can be shut down. So if a newspaper links to an original document that someone claims copyright on they would be liable.

-fair use will be further squeezed and finally eliminated.  You may not quote anyone without their express written permission.

All of these could take place even without a charge being laid. At present, under the DMCA, all that is required is an accusation made by someone with sufficient pull in the entertainment industry, to pull down a website.

Additionally there have been all kinds of secret warrants issued to get information on people who have expressed themselves under the #occupy hashtag on Twitter. The Boston DA has subpeona’d from Twitter all the user information (including DMs) on a large number of people who used that hashtag including journalists and including foreigners. Many people are fighting back attempting to quash these fishing expeditions. It’s a whole other post (or 10) to get into all the details. Suffice it to say there’s a lot more going on in this vein, against ordinary citizens, than CNN or your local newspaper is telling you. And it’s going to get a lot worse.

The Nightmare Scenario

Suppose you’re not even in the United States and you link to some resource on the Internet. Suppose that resource has used downloaded material without authorization. Happens all the time. I do it and you probably do too, knowingly or not.

Suppose then that you are arrested, removed to the US, locked up indefinitely without trial (under the NDAA which recently passed), sent to Guantanamo or Syria (extra-judicial rendition is current practice), tortured for the hell of it, maybe released in 20 years or maybe you just disappear. The end result will be determined by how much money you have.

At present even under the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) passed in 1998 one can be extradited to the US to face charges even though such a scenario involving linking is not a crime in one’s own country. This is happening right now to an English student who’s never even been to the US because of a “crime” that’s not even illegal in England. The guy ran a website with links. (Just like Buddhist Torrents) No copyrighted material on it at all. Here’s a couple of media links in case you think I’m bullshitting.  ‘Piracy’ student Richard O’Dwyer loses extradition case , ‘Piracy’ student loses US extradition battle over copyright infringement  The US has not even submitted prima facie to the English courts to bring this scenario about in many extradition cases of a similar nature. Yes that’s a failure of English lawmaking. But most other countries who have extradition treaties with the US face similar situations.

This is the future plan for Julian Assange BTW. Sweden has an extradition treaty with the US that greatly favors US interests, even moreso than the English treaty.

Here’s more on the foreign angle from Australia

Long arm of US piracy law will reach further than you think

And from the US publication Ars Technica

What does SOPA mean for us foreigners?

So this is not just an American problem it is a global problem. This kind of Corporate Colonialism, in which we are subject to the overreach of a foreign government acting at the behest of the entertainment industry cartel, affects everyone, everywhere. That’s why it’s got to be stopped. That’s why I placed signs on this and my other blogs and spent the day signing petitions and writing letters and this blog post.

Better Remedies

There are many other ways that copyright issues can be handled.

Here are a few better ideas I’ve come across:

Creative Commons Licensing is probably the best model we have at the moment. But it’s not really been legally challenged. How would it hold up in court? Many of the provisions of it could be written into law if the legislators could get their minds around other ways of looking at copyright.

CopyLeft essentially places creative items into a public domain but in such a way that modifications of the item are accounted for. It is affiliated with GNU software licensing which is often used for Open Source projects. 

There are others. Individuals have also added comments that could be easily implemented if the law makers could get over the pre-Internet mindset with regard to intellectual property.

Mumon wrote on Facebook:

One commonsense reform: if a corporation decides to take something "out of print," its copyright should be greatly weakened. An ancillary effect would be people could pay for textbooks for their kids at the basic university level.

Here are a couple of videos from well known individuals addressing these matters as well. These are people who would allegedly directly benefit from SOPA. They don’t seem all that distressed about piracy.

Neil Gaiman


Joss Stone


Thom Yorke


Trent Reznor – Steal It

One comment on “What if…?

  1. Gabe Newell of Valve Software—the company behind Steam, the digital distribution service for computer games—said that piracy isn’t a theft problem, it’s a quality of service problem. Provide a service that’s better than what pirates provide and price it reasonably, and you will get the customers. That’s working out pretty well for them.

    The currently ruling approach is completely boneheaded. I bought a boxed set of Sherlock Holmes DVD’s, and am forced to watch an utterly obnoxious “You wouldn’t steal a car” video, with loud and unpleasant “music”, every time I change discs. If I torrented the damn thing, I could go straight to watching them. Really stupid incentives there.

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