Nearly every website, book, or media work in our western world has a tiny little copyright notice at the bottom. The copyright notice is such an omnipresent societal standard that most of us have been conditioned to ignore its presence at the end of the creative works we consume. If you've had a chance to scroll down to the bottom of this page, you may have noticed that the Neosynth copyright notice is rather different from the norm. Let's take some time and talk about why that is.
1. Copyright Isn't Real
Copyright has no basis in any kind of physical reality to the universe we reside in. Ideas do not have a physical form that can be kept or owned. You can keep a house or a bar of gold to yourself, but not an idea. Ideas can be infinitely copied at will and retained in the minds of all those who come upon them. Moreover, and most importantly, ideas are inescapable.
Whether we like it or not, every idea that each and every one of us has ever "created" has been based on the ideas of those who have come before us and on information that is inherent to the universe that surrounds us. It is impossible to create a new idea without referencing and building upon ideas or discoveries made by others around us.
Yet, for a system of copyright to exist, we must close our eyes to the fundamental and universal truth. We must pretend that ideas can be originated by a singular person or entity, and we must comfortingly lie to ourselves that the ideas we have created are exclusively our own.
Any legal definition of copyright cannot exist in a manner that is not open to some level of qualitative interpretation, because there is no line that can be drawn to define originality that has a definitive basis in the reality of how ideas and transferred and modified in this universe.
Navigating the ethereal nature of copyright law as a non-lawyer is an exercise in treading murky waters where even so-called "fair use" is risky. How many of us could afford an extended legal battle against an army of megacorporate lawyers, even if the law ultimately rules in our favour? The existence of copyright creates a minefield of self-censorship in creators who have to worry about where exactly the arbitrary line of "original enough" falls to avoid the threat of legal hardship.
Which leads into the idea that...
2. Copyright is a Prison for the Mind
If you are a creative person like me, who has posted their ideas or creations in a public space, then you've probably asked yourself the following question at least once while referencing source material:
"Am I going to get in trouble with the law if I include this in my work?"
I would propose that when we ask ourselves the above question, we are limiting our creativity by censoring the works that are "available" for us to build upon. Allow me to give an example. I love Star Wars; I grew up with it, and stories set in that universe give me great joy to explore and expound upon with others. I've had several stories set within the context of that universe floating around in my head for years now, but if you check out the post history of this website you won't find a single one of them. Any time I consider putting one of those on paper, part of me has always feels driven to instead redirect my efforts toward my own settings, my own worlds: fictional places and people that won't get mired in a legal nightmare should they rise in popularity.
I can't help but stop to ask myself a pressing question. What if there's someone out there who also loves Star Wars as much as I do and might really resonate with the kinds of stories I have to tell?
I will not pretend to be a great writer myself, and I know that in a century no one will remember my silly Star Wars fanfiction. But I'm not the only writer whose mind has been conditioned by copyright. What potentially great works have been lost to the mental calculus of copyright culture? We'll never know, because those works will never be created. Or even worse: the work might be made and then sued out of existence before any of us really get to see it over the heinous crime of referencing the "wrong" ideas in their work.
I dream of a world where any work can be based on any other work, in any capacity, so that creators can let their minds run free and create beautiful art from whatever they please without risking the thought crime of including material in one's work that one hasn't been "allowed" to use.
3. Copyright Holders are Intellectual Landlords
In section one, I mentioned the idea that ideas are inescapable. When we create an idea or a work of art and release it to the world, that idea ultimately will reside in the minds of those we have shared it with. We as creators do not own our work after it has been shared with our audience; our audience does. It is human nature to take in ideas, interpret them, and reference the ideas we have already been exposed to for use in our own work. We reference ideas that live in our minds, whether we are consciously aware of what we are referencing or not. Recycling the works that came before us is an inescapable process that we should cherish as part of the human experience rather than commodify for profit.
But what does this have anything to do with landlords? A landlord, or rent-seeker, is someone who seeks to increase their share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. I would argue that the collection of royalties upon the use or distribution of a creative work is a form of intellectual landlordism. Anyone can photocopy a book, take a picture of a great painting, or download a film off of the Internet. Policing the redistribution of creative works for a profit creates no new value for anyone in society beyond extracting a transactional cut out of a work that has already been created. If anything, it's a drain on our society because...
4. Copyright Erases Living History
The human archaeological record is a sparse thing. We have built our knowledge and understanding of the past based on fragments and remnants of writings and works that have been lucky enough to survive the test of time. One of the cruelties of the universe is that, often enough, we don't get to chose what will and what won't survive into the future that proceeds us. In 1942, a young Dutch girl started a personal diary that she likely never expected anyone else to see. But, as luck would have it, her record is one of the most well-known and well-read recounts of the horrors of the Holocaust. Her work gave us a window into the world she lived in, and allowed us to preserve our cultural heritage by remembering her story.
Now, you may ask, what in the world does that have anything to do with copyright? The issue we face is that none of us know what works (Or, to be more precise, what copies of works) will and won't survive to end up in the hands of historians hoping to glean a window into the intricacies of what life was like in our world. What great music singles will be lost to time because the RIAA decided the wield their copyright sledgehammer and methodically scrub every last freely-available copy of their copyright songs from the Internet with heavy-handed DMCA requests?
History is timeless, and we cannot allow the great artistic works of the information age to be lost to time over the contrived and regressive legal precedent of our day.
5. Copyright Is, Unfortunately, Real
The unfortunate nature of the world we live in is that, even though copyright does not exist as a natural law of the universe, we as humans have made the construct of copyright the legal reality that we live in. From a young age, we are taught that our ideas are our own, and the mentality of copyright culture pervades nearly every aspect of our lives until the day we die. Or many years after, in some countries.
"An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." ― MLK
The only way to abolish the paradigm of copyright from the world we live in is if all of us actively take a stance against it:
- Make use of a copyleft license such as CC BY-SA when publishing original works in order to ensure that licensees of one's content cannot implement a more restrictive copyright license upon derivative works
- Be entertaining with your copyright notice. A little humour and attention to detail can go a long way in spurring organic engagement with the idea of copyright abolition
- Enforce copyleft rights through legal action if a third party attempts to claim or enforce copyright over a derivative work that has been licensed under a copyleft license. If we're going to live in a world where works must be licensed to protect them from copyright, we better make those licenses work for us
- Disregard the wishes of actual copyright holders. Freely copy, redistribute, and build upon protected creative works, especially if one does not have the permission of the work's legal owners
I understand that not all of us necessarily have the privilege or the ability to engage in all the above actions– and that's okay. We do what we can, where we can, and that's what counts.
By using the tools enshrined in copyright law against it as well as engaging in civil disobedience against copyright as an unjust system of laws, we have the power to make a mockery of an unjust system. We can come together to build a better world for the artists and historians of tomorrow by protecting their right to do what they can with the ideas we create today.
The visual for this post is the Free Speech flag (not to be confused with freeze peach). The free speech flag visually encodes the hexadecimal encryption key used to decrpyt HD-DVD and Bluray disks to subvert copyright protection, and it represents the movement to protect our personal liberty to share information freely by abolishing intellectual property.