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Lodo Bear

Disagreeing with J. Neil Schulman

Posted on 2014.06.19 at 15:16
There's a big disagreement currently under way in the libertarian movement over the subject of "intellectual property". The Technology Liberation Front aptly summarizes our current internal strife near the bottom of the page in this little handy guide. After expressing a unified and consistent viewpoint about six different contentious issues, the TLF has this to say about IP issues:

"Cyber-libertarians are deeply divided over IP issues (especially copyright) and this reflects a long-standing division within libertarian ranks on these issues more generally. Some believe IP rights are a natural extension of traditional property rights and/or a sensible way to incentivize scientific and artistic creativity. Others believe no one has a right to “property-tize” intangible creations or that copyright is simply industrial protectionism. And there are many views in between."

The second view (contra copyright and IP in general) is the view I sympathize with, and it has many fine advocates. I believe that the most oustpoken anti-IP libertarian is N. Stephan Kinsella, whose book Against Intellectual Property was and is a big influence on my thinking. But the first view has its advocates too, including no less than good old Ayn Rand, who declared: "Patents and copyrights are the legal implementation of the base of all property rights: a man’s right to the product of his mind." The most prominent pro-IP libertarian that I know of is J. Neil Schulman who advocates a theory of "informational property" that he calls Logorights (after "logos", Greek for "word" or "thought").

I hate to disagree with Mr. Schulman, since he's written some really good stuff, including this defense of Edward Snowden and this defense of Chelsea Manning. While so many others denounce them or dither over what to do about them, Neil calls them heroes and says that the only thing we need to do with them is listen to what they're trying to tell us. I don't personally know many people who would be comfortable openly supporting Snowden and Manning like that, so I want to thank Neil for doing so. So Neil, if you're reading this, let me just say that by openly doing the right thing and supporting the whistle-blowers, you have made it easier for all of us to also do the right thing. I owe you one, and I hope I can pay it forward.

That being said, I still think Neil is wrong on IP, and I cannot rest as long as someone is wrong on the Internet. So, on to the disagreement.

Way back in ye olde 2009, Nina Paley and the good folks at QuestionCopyright.org made a little video called Copying Is Not Theft. Neil disagreed, and wrote a two-part response (part I, part II) in which he declared that copying IS theft, akin to identity theft, or forgery. Do give Neil's stuff a read, so you can understand where he's coming from. Got it all read? Good! Now then, please consider the following hypothetical.

Alice is talking to Bob, and Alice asks Bob, "Have you heard of J. Neil Schulman?" "No", Bob replies, "can you tell me about him?" Alice begins telling Bob all about J. Neil Schulman, and mentions that Schulman has written a book called Alongside Night. Bob asks Alice for more details about Alongside Night. Alice describes Alongside Night to Bob in great detail... in fact, her description includes every word in the book, every punctuation and formatting mark, and even a good description of the cover image. If Bob has a good memory, he now has a full copy of Alongside Night in his mind, and he can use that information to make new copies to give to other people.

Now then, have either Alice or Bob committed identity theft? Have either of them committed forgery, or plagiarism, or counterfeiting, or any other kind of dishonest act? If they have done something wrong, what is the nature of their wrongdoing?

As I see it, the answer to the first two questions is "No!" There has been no dishonesty. Alice told Bob the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and Bob simply remembered everything he heard. This behavior is often criminalized under the title of "copyright infringement", but the substance of the act is simply telling the truth. If we call this a crime, then we are saying that it is wrong to tell too much of the truth. Calling such an action a "forgery" would be equivalent to saying that a high-resolution photo of a painting is a forgery of that painting, which would mean that this massive repository of digitized works is some kind of super-crime, and that this picture of money is a dastardly act of counterfeiting, to say nothing of this huge collection of freely copyable texts. I'm just not seeing the fakery here. So why, then, is Neil saying that it's bad for Alice to tell Bob all that truth?

Now, under some circumstances, we do consider it wrong to tell too much of the truth. After all, how would you feel if your doctor told the whole world the whole truth about what she discovered during your last proctological exam? There are some things that we prefer to keep private, and when we have to reveal these things to someone, we try to constrain them to keep the information to themselves. I see nothing inherently wrong with this; I like the fact that my banker does not automatically tell everyone about my business with the bank, and that my therapist does not disclose what I talk about during my therapy sessions. But how well does this relate to the situation with Alice and Bob? I don't think it fits very well at all; when Schulman published Alongside Night, he did so because he wanted the world to read it, and he continues to want the world to read it, as evidenced by the fact that he's still selling it. So Neil's not treating this as something private, he's making it public... but he's asking Alice and Bob to treat it as private.

No, seriously, look again at what he's asking for in part I. Neil wants "the sole right to offer copies of things that are part and parcel of my personal identity". So if Alice wants to tell the whole truth about Alongside Night, Neil says that she can't because he owns the "logos" to his book, and like his logorights notice says: "This Work is licensed for reading purposes only. All other rights and uses, including the right to make copies, are reserved to its Owner." But since telling the whole truth constitutes making a complete copy, Alice is denied the right to tell the whole truth, and Bob is denied the right to receive it from Alice.

Now, let me direct your attention to the two articles I linked to earlier, the ones Schulman wrote that say nice things about Snowden and Manning. Consider this: what it is that Edward and Chelsea actually did, that got folks so riled up? They told the truth. They told the whole truth, and they did it without permission. They took facts that powerful people wanted to keep private, and they made them public. The powers that be are trying to privatize the facts again, but the reality is that truth cannot be simultaneously public and private. A thing made public is in the public's control, and no one has any power, let alone any "right", to privatize something that has been made public, and this goes double when the person making it public (in other words, the publisher) is the one trying to make it private (by claiming a property right in the information).

It gets even better the deeper you look. Edward Snowden publicly supports EFF and Tor. Judging from some comments he's made, J. Neil Schulman doesn't seem to be a big fan of the EFF, and little wonder: the EFF, while not anti-IP, still supports limits on copyright and related rights well beyond anything that Neil is willing to concede in his theory of logorights. Also, while not totally opposed to copyright, the EFF is completely opposed to DRM - in other words, that "copy protection" that Neil puts on his books and movies when he sells them on Amazon, and then gets mad about when people crack it and start making copies. And then there's the Tor sticker. Tor is a technology that helps people conceal and anonymize their online activity. You know what concealed, anonymous online activity is really great for? Copyright infringement, of course! When no one can see what you're doing, no one knows what information you're copying.

So why is Snowden supporting the EFF and Tor? The answer is: because he needed them. The technology that EFF and Tor make available, and the political causes they support, made Snowden's leaks possible. Without their technical support, Snowden couldn't have contacted the reporters who helped him spread the word, and without their political support, those reporters couldn't have shared the truth about what the Five Eyes are doing. Snowden and his allies are still having plenty of trouble, but they would never have accomplished anything at all if not for the help of tools and policies that enable "piracy". And just to drive the point home, let's look at the case of Chelsea Manning. She could never have spread the word about war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan without the help of Wikileaks. And who is it who hosts Wikileaks's servers? The Pirate Party of Sweden, of course! And why not? Since online piracy consists of telling too much truth (according to the copyright holders), and whistle-blowing consists of telling too much truth (according to the elites), pirates and whistle-blowers are natural allies.

I'm hardly the first person to make this observation, and I'm not even the first one to make this observation in response to Neil's writing. The pseudonymous dL, with whom Schulman has sparred in the past, wrote up this post: The Enforceable Obligations of IP & Copyright in Political Economy. dL's point in that piece was that there's no way to enforce copyright without ubiquitous surveillance. If we successfully abolished the State, but then attempted to enforce copyright or logoright, the resulting enforcement regime would swiftly develop into a new State, equipped with the power to invade privacy, to punish without trial, to control the spread of truth, to cripple our technology, and to tax and restrain competition and trade. No libertarian wants any of that, and even people who hate libertarians hate most of that stuff, too. But all of that is the natural result of copyright enforcement. Any attempt to prevent people from telling too much truth will inevitably hand power over to people who see the truth itself as an enemy.

We cannot risk that happening. We can't trust anyone with the power to suppress the truth. If we would be free, we must be informed, and if we would be informed, then we must let information flow. We must deny to anyone and everyone the power to control our computers and police our communications. And if that means making copyright or logoright or any other kind of IP completely unenforceable, then that's the price we have to pay. I'm not willing to let Big Brother watch me whenever I want to watch a movie.

Now at this point, pro-IP folks like Neil bring up economic concerns. Things like this:

"Or, I spend four years of my life and a half million bucks of my family’s dough — including fourteen cuts in an editing bay — making a movie. Then I put it up for sale on Amazon.com as a Video on Demand. Someone with software to get by any copy protection Amazon.com has takes my movie and presses it into DVD’s for sale in kiosks in Hong Kong... and, once again, as a Torrent. Now before I even get the chance to sell my movie for commercial distribution — which might get me back the cash, talent, and time invested in making this movie so I can afford to make another one — people are getting the benefit of my blood, sweat, toil, tears, and cash... and I am prevented from self-financing my next movie."

Well, if money's what you're worried about, there are plenty of folks with good suggestions. Folks like Mike Masnick, Kevin Kelly, and Nina Paley. Nina Paley is especially worth listening to: she made a movie, called Sita Sings the Blues, and went many thousands of dollars into debt making it, and let everyone copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast, and remix it without having to ask permission, and somehow still made a net profit! That being said, let me tell you how I really feel when I hear someone ask how they're supposed to make money from art without the help of copyright:

If you can't figure out how to earn a living without denying people the right to tell the whole truth, then YOU DO NOT DESERVE TO MAKE ANY MONEY. And if the only motive you have to make art is to make money off of it, then I DO NOT WANT ANY OF YOUR ART.

Now, let me quote one last sentence of Neil's:

"The first claim of authorship of something I write is my byline attached to the writing. In a novel this is on the cover and title page. I write a dedication and acknowledgments, giving the work a purpose and a pedigree. On the copyright page is a claim of ownership — in land terms the posting of a “No Trespassing” sign, to stake out the boundaries of ownership."

And finally, let me quote Woody Guthrie:

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn't say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.

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