Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Where Does Doug Johnson Get These Ideas?


In general, when it comes to intellectual property, a difficult concept for most people, especially younger ones, is that the creator does have the right to control the use of his product. He does not have an obligation to sell it or make it available for use if he chooses not to. If I make a chair and even let you look at my chair, there is nothing that requires me sell you my chair, a copy of my chair or the design plans for my chair. I can legally stop you from making a copy of my chair if the design has been copyright/trademark protected, I believe.

"The creator does have the right to control the use of his product!?" Based on what? If I go over to your house and like the new chair you created, of course I can't compel you to sell it to me or give me the plans, but I can certainly go home and make one just like it. Whether or not I can sell or redistribute the copies would depend on if you patented the chair, but getting a patent on a chair can't be easy at this point. Regardless, you can't stop me from making a chair just like it and putting it in my house, and if the chair can't be patented, what's the basis for preventing me from making and selling them? You can't copyright a chair. Or a piece of clothing or a recipe dish, for that matter.

I find it difficult to understand why school librarians seem so anxious to ape Raymond Ty and promote the strictest possible interpretations of intellectual property law. I just don't get the motivation.

Also, I didn't take enough philosophy courses to really get in a argument beyond the common sense level about the definition of "ethics," but I think people who like to talk about digital ethics are conflating "ethical" and "legal" behavior. Don't ethics transcend law? For example, most people would agree that going into Doug's house and taking his chair without his permission is both illegal and unethical. If I take the chair and leave money equal to the replacement cost of the chair, plus some compensation for his trouble, it is still illegal and unethical. If he has insurance that covers the replacement cost of the chair, it is still illegal and unethical. If a law is passed that says it is ok to steal chairs from people named Doug, then taking his chair would be legal, but most people would still consider it unethical, at least those with some perspective on the scenario. If my baby was dying for want of a chair, and Doug had extra chairs, stealing one might be ethically justifiable, but still completely illegal.

Here's the thing about, say, file sharing copyrighted music. Right now, it is clearly illegal and many people argue it is unethical. If tomorrow a law is passed that makes file sharing legal and tracks what files are downloaded and compensates artists from a common pool of money, then file sharing would not only become recognized as legal but also ethical, right? The problem people have with file sharing music isn't ethical but economic. If the economic issues were resolved, people would stop pretending there were ethical ones.

One final example. It is ethically wrong to plagiarize. It continues to be ethically wrong to plagiarize regardless of the economics of the situation. It is not less wrong to plagiarize if I compensate the original author. It is not less wrong if I have his or her permission. It is just ethically wrong, period. That's the way ethics works; it doesn't depend on who is getting paid.

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