Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Core of Civil Liberties: Copyright

Enter our contest!

When our founding fathers wrote the Constitution, they recognized that the guarantee of the protecting the thoughts and ideas of citizens was important. While they ultimately felt that this protection was best addressed by the First Amendment, they did mandate that Congress should have the power to protect these ideas.

However, after years of argument and study, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were still at odds as to the duration of time. Thomas Jefferson, who had read every book ever published up to his time, implied that he was not in favor of either copyright or patents, though he conceded to Franklin that both were a good way of spurring action. The ultimate story shows that Franklin also concedes that a limited time is the only way that freedom could be preserved. Jefferson understood that the current battle over copyright is one that should have been avoided, because it ultimately detracts from the freedom of expression, speech, and creativity. The battle itself is a problem, but so is the extremism on both sides of the copyright argument.

On one side, are the pirates (see my previous post about the Pirate Party's Constitution). On the other, copyright enforcers who want to make copyright all-encompassing. The enforcers are too late. It's already all-encompassing.

But the real issue at stake is that copyright itself ties inherently into free speech, privacy, and even the way our Congress works. The biggest problem is that the lobbies have historically purchased the right to lobby officials. This corrupting influence leads politicians into a kind of forced march, and one that they often feel there is no real political way out of. The officials aren't corrupt, but the chink in their armor is that they are more worried about how people will perceive something than they are about doing what is right within the principles of democracy. These principles are immutable, and they are the purpose for the founding of our country. Though it would be a radical change to simply revert copyright law to its original state, it is the aim of many to take it even further and eradicate Copyright altogether with a Constitutional Amendment.

Nothing could be so huge of a mistake than to simply do away with these protections. Used responsibly, these protections are the main driving force behind our economy, our businesses, and our dominance of the world's inventive markets. Throughout the 1800's and well into the first half of the 1900's, there was an enormous gap between the United States and other countries. We helped them forge democracies of their own, but in large part the issue of control surfaced and has negated many portions of the democracies that we now claim to be in operation.

The issue of our copyrights in foreign lands is a large one for Congress, as well. The traditional standpoint of US foreign policy is to try to maintain good relations with everyone. But once again, there is a corrupting influence that has crept in over the decades and which has created the issue of trying to control foreign countries. This has stemmed from not only other countries trying to subvert our own, but also a reactionary tendency to jump into action any time there is a perceived threat, often before we even really understand the nature of that threat. As a prime example of this, the USA-PATRIOT Act essentially grants broad "emergency powers" to the President, powers which have become a bone of contention with many people.

However, most of the public doesn't really seem that interested about it, because it's intended for prosecuting terrorists, right? The problem with this is that it's never been used for that purpose. Its only purpose, according to a source in Congress (who is neither a Congressman nor a Senator) is to prosecute American citizens. In fact, it has been used increasingly to circumvent habeas corpus for not only prisoners of war, but also prisoners in the United States who are civilians.

And again, most don't care about this. Who cares about some drug-dealer? Who wants to even worry about fair treatment of some rapist or murderer? The issue at stake here is that if they can do it to one, they can justify it for all. We require sex offenders to register. How long will it be before we require everyone to report to the government where they're living and call it a crime not to inform them? How long will it be before election fraud is the excuse to put American citizens in jail for failure to report a change of address?

You see, people in power tend to love that power. The kind of power that comes from overseeing a large population is kind of like a drug. And that kind of power is exactly the kind of power that those who want to use the mandate of what is now copyright law in the Constitution in order to control Congress. Congresspeople become pawns because they have to retain favor. And with the media controlling government (and not the other way around, by any stretch of the imagination), they very much believe that the power to influence minds resides with the entertainment industry. After all, the entertainment industry even says so.

But there are an increasing number of people who are parting with the entertainment industry and who are instead stiking out on their own. They are legally distributing their work over the Internet for free, marketing their talents, and hoping that enough people decide to pay in order to send them on tour (where even more people will pay, so that they themselves can continue making music). They are protecting their own rights by parting with the powerful and wealthy entertainment industry.

The entertainment industry folks claim that they are also seeking to protect artists' rights. The biggest problem with this that I have is that this just isn't so. The massive bulk of the artists that I've spoken to who have anything to do with the entertainment industry have said flatly that there isn't a single shred of truth to that idea. What they're really interested in is control.

The current WGA strike is evidence of this within the MPAA organizations, such as television and movies, and even radio production. The RIAA organizations haven't suffered as much, but they are instead waging their own war, and they finally realize that they're on the unpopular side. But they're still unconvinced that it's the wrong side, because the only "right" thing to them is continuing their livelihoods by screwing artists out of the right to perform their own works, fleecing Congress, and litigating against an otherwise-law-abiding public. They want to control what people see, hear, and (by proxy) think. This is a danger to democracy.

The issue of copyright comes down to the very core of democracy: the right to freely think. Protecting this right is important, but even more important is the balancing act needed to ensure that it remains viable. We should get back to the arguments of Jefferson and Franklin, and we will see the wisdom of a fourteen-year term as opposed to the life-plus-seventy-years that artists currently have. Protecting something as vital to national interests as democracy means doing things that may be unpopular, but it also means adhering to the principles upon which democracy was founded. There can be no mistake about the importance of this argument, as it is the basis for all of the other rights which our citizens enjoy.

A world dominated by copyright law until we are no longer allowed to enjoy it is not a world I want to live in. It's a broad world we live in, and one which should enjoy that breadth in full. While I agree that attribution should remain intact perpetually, I don't think that creative derivative works should be considered infringement. I also don't think that Sonny Bono's music from 1974 is great enough to warrant litigation against some teenager who decides to download it and check it out (and probably won't really want it anyway). And who remembers Martika (one of my favorite artists... most don't until I talk about her hit called "Toy Soldiers")? I don't think her music from 1988 really warrants litigation if I'm singing it at the top of my lungs as I walk down the street (off-key, I might add, since I have a vocal injury from high school that prevents some kinds of vocal control). However, litigating against me does serve to tell me who thinks that they're firmly in control.

Thankfully, "Happy Birthday" (a derivative creative work) is copyrighted, but enforced responsibly. There isn't a legal team from ASCAP or RIAA at every birthday party demanding that people pay. No team of lawyers is aiming a boom microphone into back-yard barbecues, because there isn't a single person who would stand for the infringement of privacy that this would entail. But we tolerate people aiming software into our computers to spy on its contents. We wouldn't tolerate it if a lawyer handed out lyric sheets for the "Happy Birthday" song from an ice cream truck and then tried to sue people for taking them, yet we tolerate organizations who would set up a server to download from, and then sue people for downloading. We wouldn't tolerate lawyers going through our mail in order to learn who lives at a residence, but we tolerate an end-run around due process with ex parte discovery orders (and which essentially accomplishes the same task).

The "copyright regime" doesn't really operate in a capacity that I would call either fair or ethical, nor do they seem to want to practice equitably. They do seem to want to make copyright the be-all and end-all of cultural free expression. And they're killing culture with it. Copyright litigation is killing free expression. It's doing irreparable harm to democracy in our country. And it's stinking up our global neighborhood.

It's time we firmly stanced ourselves against both the "copyright regime" folks and those who want to abolish copyright. We need to get back to rationality, and to allow the fair use of copyrighted materials again. We must do this, or the entire basis for civil liberties in this country is in jeopardy. Copyright is so important to democracy that we should be willing to act.

This is why I've decided to join the Pirate Party. By being rational and truthful, we have more to gain than by deceptive practices (as the MPAA and RIAA have done). By and large, the Pirate Party has become the voice of reason, and one that it seems as though one presidential candidate has at least partly picked up on. However, this particular candidate doesn't seem to realize that expanding upon copyright is a mistake, and will cost us not only here at home, but also abroad.

I'm fairly certain that this particular candidate stands a good chance at being president, whether he addresses the copyright issue or not. However, I cannot in good conscience vote for anyone I don't believe in. That write-in vote for "Abstain" is looking kind of good right about now.

I just hope things change before they become too late.