Copyright Woes

If I am not, strictly speaking, a libertarian, like James Delingpole, I have a libertarian streak — which helps explain why I, too, dislike SOPA and PIPA. I would, in fact, be inclined to go even further than the opponents of these two bills and challenge the copyright law that provides their underpinning.

Do not get me wrong. I think that there should be a copyright law. One sign that the Founding Fathers intended that the United States be a commercial republic is the fact that the Framers embedded within the country’s constitution a clause stipulating that Congress provide for copyrights and patents — which is to say, that they endorsed the notion of intellectual property.

But here is the kicker. They did so for only a limited term. Their purpose was to encourage innovation, to reward inventors and authors, and ease their inventions and writings into the public domain with reasonable alacrity — so that they could be of benefit to all.

The aim of the entertainment industry is to maximize profits, and they have pushed again and again for the extension of copyright. That they have succeeded time and again in the last few decades is a sign of their power. But the truth is that, in repeatedly extending copyright, Congress is denying to the rest of us what is rightly ours: works that, until recently, would have found their way into the public domain. So, if we produce a play at a college, sing a song, post a video, upload a photograph, or quote a snatch of T. S. Eliot’s poetry in the process of producing something of our own, we find ourselves in deep trouble.

Consider what it would mean if the pharmaceutical industry were to succeed in getting Congress to extend the patents they own in the same fashion. The principle at stake is the same. Intellectual property was created with an eye to the public good. What does the public gain from extending copyright? And what does it lose? These are the appropriate questions to ask.

If our copyright laws were not already a disgrace, we would not be discussing enormities like SOPA and PIPA.