double standard

There is a supposed double standard in the political views of freedom of information types. It goes that, on the one hand we expect the GNU General Public License to be enforced, but on the other hand we complain when the RIAA sues people who are sharing music online.

There are a few gaping holes in this supposed contradiction. First of all, the RIAA is suing end users for disproportionate sums compared to the supposed damage they have done, in some cases $100,000 per user. They assume that they price of their CD is the value of that CD, in calculating the damages, which is an economic fallacy when a monopoly (such as any copyright industry) is involved. The RIAA also uses this money to lobby and/or bribe politicians for copyright enforcement rights that are in contempt of due process and unreasonable searches, and for arbitrary copyright privileges and lengths. In contrast, the GPL crusaders simply want the source code that they are entitled to by the license, not any sum of money to appease them – the freed information is the goal of the license and its adherents, not revenues.

The other problem with this is that the complaint involves the RIAA going after _nonprofit_ file sharers. Note that commercial pirates are not exempted from criticism. Of course, you could just accuse the freedom of information types of being communists, but also note that the GPL does not prohibit selling the software. GPL defenders equally lambast both freeware and commercial authors who are benefiting from the work of open source authors who were motivated because of the GPL, but refuse complying with the GPL by reciprocating the benefits to the community, which removes incentive for the authors of the GPL software to continue to develop it.

Copyright is supposed to be an exchange. In accordance with the Constitution, the federal government is authorized to provide “temporary” monopolies “to promote progress of the sciences and useful arts”. 100 year copyrights are not temporary by any definition that takes human life expectancy into account (is a 100 year sentence a “temporary” imprisonment?). Furthermore, it is arguable that such indefinite copyright lengths are actually counter to the promotion of progress. It is a myth that new works are borne entirely of some inspiration of genius. Every new work is both a combination of inspiration and standing on the shoulders of those who previously innovated. For an example, look at jazz to see how a healthy innovative environment functions, and compare the level of innovation to the humdrum commercial music that the RIAA promotes.

Another related problem is that the GPL crusaders are directly defending authors who are actually creating new material, while the RIAA is not. The RIAA claims to have the artists' interests in mind, but nowhere have they shown that they share the dividends of these suits with the artists. Copyright privilege already extends to the life of the author plus 75 years, so if the artist's contract assigns the copyright to an RIAA member company (as is frequently the case), they get 75 years of royalty-free mooching off an artist's life work. That's not a good deal for the public at all.

The original 14 year term is far more reasonable. To the GPL, this would mean that the source code is required by copyright to be shared for 14 years until the software becomes public domain. That certainly seems reasonable given the length of the typical software life cycle. To the RIAA, this means that artists would have to continue to innovate, and that the RIAA would have to support an enviroment that fosters innovation, instead of simply living off the fat of previous works.

So while the RIAA lobbies for and continues to obtain arbitrary copyright powers, I feel that nonprofit sharing of their work in violation of their copyright is justified.

Some compare this to Robin Hood and claim that it's just like trying to justify stealing from the rich just because they have something you don't. The fallacy there is that Robin Hood was not simply stealing from the rich, he was challenging the arbitrary authority of King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and returning freedom to the people that was removed from them when they had done no harm. Nonprofit sharing harms no one except producers of shoddy or trivial works. When shoddy or trivial works become the norm, nonprofit sharing helps those who produce innovative works, because they can be identified before purchase as opposed to the purchase being a gamble for the consumer. Nonprofit sharing thus promotes progress, and you'd think it should be a constitutionally protected right. Note that the authors would not be required to provide the mechanism for doing this – they are free to invoke whatever copy controls they want, but the consumer is free to bypass them at whatever expense or hassle it takes him.

As for who holds the moral high ground, the GPL advocates want the free dissemination of information and the legal ability to modify it to their own desires and share the result with others. The RIAA wants money for their executives, shareholders, and their legal war chest. Into whose hands would you rather place the reins of legislating incentives for innovation in society? Whose goals include the long term benefit of the most people?

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