Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. Andre Gide

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Don't do it for us. Do it for Canada.

The backdrop here is Bill C-32, an Act to amend the Canadian Copyright Act. The bill would criminalise the act of circumventing, or making available to the public the ability to circumvent, digital rights management software locks. In short, the bill is basically designed to strengthen property rights over intellectual property.

Contrary to what many may think, the economic argument for these laws is not as strong as one might imagine. For those interested in understanding why, please refer to this fine blog by Michele Boldrin and David Levine: Against Monopoly. In Canada, we have Michael Geist offering good arguments against certain aspects of C-32.

But the purpose of this post is not to debate C-32. What I want to show you is this: a letter recently published in a major Canadian newspaper, written on behalf of a group of "concerned Canadian authors." Despite C-32's attempt to strengthen copyright law, these authors evidently do not think it goes far enough. The reason for this is because C-32 may allow for some degree of fair use. (For related commentary, see Meera Nair's interesting blog: Fair Duty).

Fair use. Oh, the horror. Oh, the hypocrisy. (They evidently have zero concept of how their own creative works have been built on the shoulders of free social capital.)

Anyway, take a look at the letter. Who did they employ to write it? I mean, it's one thing to state one's objections to a pending legislation; I have no problem with this. But the tone...the reads as if it were written by a petulant child (and this is perhaps giving them too much credit, as I think the maturity level in most children exceeds that which is displayed in this letter).

But what really got me was the concluding statement.

Pathetic. Truly pathetic.


  1. This is like saying trade tariffs benefit the imposing country. Nonsense!

    I've read some of this guy's stuff:

    I'm not sure my exact position on intellectual property, but I thought you might like Kinsella's take (btw: he's against it, basically because people can't own ideas.)

  2. Prof J: What would be your view of the Lebanese (Phonecians)asserting their exclusive rights over the alphabet? :)

  3. I never thought of it that way. It sounds like nonsense straight off, but lets work through this. I think we can just say it's silly to think that a race of people would have exclusive ownership over something one of them invented, or even a few of them.

    So, some dude starts using some symbols to imitate sounds in written form. Presumably the purpose is to share this with someone; either himself later on (replacing memory) or other people now and later. So lets say he shares the marks on a tablet with someone. That someone then replicates the symbols, either in the same order or a different order. Has the copier violated the property rights of the originator?

    Since the symbols represents noises, and those noises represent thoughts, it is clear that we are not talking about typical objects, or even personal services.

    What's unique about a method of communication is that it's only valuable if others use it. Creating the alphabet, unless used only for one's own memory, is no different from using sounds. Both are used to communicate and thus cannot be proprietary otherwise they would be valueless. If they are valueless then there is no point to discussing the property rights therein.

    There's another way to go here, and I'm going to get really existential and hark back to the days when I was pursuing a philosophy minor. I think Gottlob Frege had a theory by which one couldn't own ideas because they weren't 'created' by a person, but rather 'discovered' since the ideas were already existing in the world.

  4. Prof J:

    Frege's theory sounds intriguing. I'll have to think about it.

    I just get pissed off at these (self-described) leftist artists all of a sudden discovering the wonders of private property and exclusivity.

    I go to a bar and a garage band is prohibited from playing a cover tune (unless the audience pays) because it violates the creator's rights? As if the Rolling Stones did not base their hits on blues riffs already in existence and for which they obtained for free? Hypocrisy.

    But there is an efficiency argument to be made too. Allowing a limited amount of copying may be an efficient way to diffuse knowledge, which in turn, stimulates more knowledge creation. I interpret fair use in this way.

  5. You don't have to reach for hypothetical Phoenicians to demonstrate the absurdity of our IP regime. Here is a real-life example.

    It impossible in principle to settle a trade in a listed security without identifying the security. In America, securities are identified with something called a CUSIP, and since it is vital for the small Canadian market to inter-operate with the large American one, Canadian securities are also identified by CUSIP.

    However, these CUSIP numbers are privately "owned" by the American Banker's Association, which has in turn licensed them to S&P. S&P charges financial institutions for using CUSIPs (technically only for *storing* them; but that is a distinction without a difference) and routinely goes fishing for unlicensed users to shake down. It's like owning the concept of a telephone number and charging for using them.

    There is an international, non-proprietary standard for identifying securities that is used in the rest of the world. But for practical reasons, the international identifiers for North American securities are based on CUSIPs. So the bottom line is that if a British hedge fund wants to buy a Canadian security from an Australian bank, it has to pay protection money to the ABA (via S&P.)

  6. Could you inlclude a link to the letter by the artists? I tried clicking on the letter and goes toa screenshot that I couldn't possibly read. Good topic.

  7. Bruce, I do not have a link. Have you tried magnifying the screenshot. Should work.