Update: this is pretty disorganized–read at your own risk.
I said previously that the purpose of copyright is to increase the public domain. The method by which it achieves this purpose is providing incentives to those capable of producing desirable instances of the types of matter subject to copyright. On this view, once such matter has been produced, copyright has done its job. The legal restrictions on copying are a kind of necessary evil–they exist for the sake of the production which precedes them. This is quite different from the widespread legal view of copyright as a natural right arising from “ownership” of the material produced.
There are several consequences of this view for the moral status of copyright. As noted last time, copyright infringement is not theft, though it is generally immoral. Even more obviously, plagiarism is not theft, and those who call it such have no idea what they are talking about–in the case of plagiarism, there is not usually even a potential sale of which someone is deprived. Morally, plagiarism is much more like lying than like theft; it is the misrepresentation of someone else’s work as one’s own.
As I said above, I think that in general it is immoral to break copyright law. As with other laws, however, if there are cases in which the law is clearly not ordered to the common good (in this case the optimal benefit of the public domain), it is not necessarily wrong to violate it. For instance, according to some interpretations of current law (I don’t know if they are correct), it would be a violation of copyright law to write your own software that plays DVDs. It seems to me that even if this were true, it would obviously not be morally binding. Someone who has legally purchased a DVD is its owner, and entitled to watch it however he sees fit. Regarding my use of the word “owner,” I don’t agree with the notion of things like software being “licensed, not sold” (a fiction invented in order to subvert the first sale doctrine, among other reasons); and by “don’t agree,” I mean that I think it doesn’t happen, not that I think it shouldn’t happen. But even if I did, it wouldn’t matter in this case, since even if the purchaser of a DVD were merely purchasing a license to watch it, he would have the right to watch it in virtue of the license. The attempt to sell a license to watch a movie, and at the same time to require the purchase of another another license to convert the digital data into analog form, i.e. to make it watchable, is nothing but a veiled attempt to sell the same thing twice, which is not morally justifiable regardless of whether it is approved by the legal system (cf. St. Thomas’s argument in ST II-II, Q. 78, A. 1, Resp.). Otherwise, such licenses could be multiplied indefinitely by inserting additional licensing points in the process of translation from DVD to video display.
OK, the last paragraph was something of a rant. That’s because (to continue the rant) I think that we presently have a lot of laws that fail, to a greater or lesser degree, to promote the common good, and the field of copyright law has more than its share. For example, I can’t recall ever reading about a single instance in recent years (or earlier) in which a country shortened its copyright periods. Goverments seem only to extend them, and when they do, others start talking about the need to create parity by extending their own. Noticeably absent is any explanation of how the proposed extensions will benefit the common good. In fact, I’m not sure that those who propose copyright extensions even realize that they ought to be explaining this; the proper function of copyright seems almost completely forgotten today.
Update (following three paragraphs): Again, based on my prior reasoning, it doesn’t seem to me that copyright law can be intrinsically morally binding in cases in which it provides absolutely no advantage to the copyright holder. For example, many companies hold copyright on old computer software from ten to twenty, or more, years ago. They no longer offer the products for sale because no one would buy them. Consequently, some do not bother to enforce their copyrights (against, e.g., distribution via the internet), while others do. While these copyrights maintain their legal force, it’s not so clear that they maintain their moral force. This is because, as stated previously, intellectual matter is not really the “property” of its authors. They have no natural right to prevent its being copied, but only a legal right derived from the authority of the state; and the state only has this authority insofar as the advantages it confers to authors contribute to the public good. When the advantage of exclusive copyright ceases to make this contribution, it ceases to exist. A related consequence of this that copyright also has no moral force if its holder is merely using it to prevent publication of something, that is, not itself offering the content to the public it in any way.
Some proponents of IP piracy like to use the phrase “information wants to be free.” While they draw an erroneous conclusion from their principle, they nevertheless assert the principle because they see that it must be true in some way. It is true in the sense that what belongs to the intellect is ipso facto common to all.
At this point I should note a possible objection to the foregoing. In many cases laws which are in themselves unjust ought nevertheless to be obeyed for prudential reasons; for instance, lest people lose respect for the law even when it is not unjust. This may well apply to some of the cases I discuss here. But my point has to do with the extent to which copyright laws are per se morally binding.
This train of thought is beginning to raise a whole web of related topics that threaten to become hopelessly (inside joke: snarky comments from the peanut gallery on my use of this adverb will be ignored–you know who you are) disorganized. So I’ll stop. I need to collect my thoughts before saying more.
Read Full Post »