July 2005


The Supreme Court this week handed down a series of decisions about property cases, that consistently extend the rights of big business at the expense of the rest of us.

"Supreme Court rules against file swapping," the headline read. The actual decision in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. is much more complex. It starts with a simple question: "What is art?" The court answers that art is a commodity. It is a tangible article, like a can of soup. The artist, sells his or her product to the highest bidder. That highest bidder can create copies of this art for sale to the public at large and can promote sales through public relations, promotion, and advertising.

Having purchased a copy, you as purchaser have very limited rights of ownership. You often cannot, for example, make another copy of the copy, even for your own use. If you have a party, you may not be allowed to share your copy with your friends and family, unless you pay a fee.

And the sad part is, this all probably makes perfect sense to you. If you told this as a story to somebody in ancient Athens, 11th century Dacca, 16th century Baghdad, 17th century Peking, or even somebody in 19th century America, they would all think you were making it up -- it couldn't be real. The art of a people is an expression of who and what that people are. All true art belongs to the people. Art is like knowledge, or technology, or education, or medicine, or science: they are the community property of civilization. These things only achieve their true potential when they are open to all and denied to none.

Let's pick a small example. There are probably 250 million people wandering over this planet somewhere that could recognize and identify half a dozen Joni Mitchell songs. Probably not more than 15-20 million people have ever bought one or more of her records. Some people have heard her on the radio. Most people first heard her music by having it shared with them by other people. Real art is like that: however good it may be, it's better when you share it. If all the legal restrictions had actually been enforced in a rigorous way, her audience might have been only half as big. If those restrictions hadn't been, who knows but that her audience might have been ten times bigger.

"But the artist has got to eat!" you say. True, but the Supreme Court isn't defending small starving artists, they're defending the profits of multi-billion dollar entertainment conglomerates. If you're a starving artist, you want people to hear your music -- to hell with copyright; copyright is the reason why you can't get anyone to listen to your music: because nobody will deliver your music to an audience unless they're sure they can make a big profit from it. If 200 million people know and love your art, you won't starve.

Ownership is why there's no gallery space for your pictures. Intellectual property is why important research results are not shared so that different research groups can build upon each others' work and achieve breakthrough science. Ownership is why my children can't do useful academic research on the Internet unless they pay dozens of up-front fees and why their textbooks cost $95 instead of $12. Intellectual property rights are why one dollar in four that is now spent in research is spent on security and not research.

When Salk discovered the Polio vaccine, he gave it to the world, complete with instructions on how to make it. Companies competed with one another to make it better, faster, and cheaper. That is how it ought to be. Most of those companies made a considerable profit on their labors.

Ownership/intellectual property rights -- are getting in the way of art, science, medicine, education, and technology. They are beginning to apply a strong braking action to the development of our civilization, at a time when our only hope may be spectacular developments in science, technology, education, and understanding. At a time when our interests are best served by collective efforts and collaboration, we're adopting the motto: "All for one, and none for all."

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