The Revolutions of Time
By Jonathan Dunn
Public Domain Books
Foreword for Authorama - On the Public Domain
Throughout history all literature was in the public domain, but, in the United States, “intellectual property” is traded as if it were some sort of tangible commodity. This is especially shameful when one considers that the public domain is precisely what drives the advancement of society. As the technology to promulgate and store information increases, so too does the ability to use that information as a framework for future advances. It is unfortunate that as the physical obstacles are overcome, legal ones are created to replace them.
Intellectual property rights simply do not exist outside of man’s legislation, and this type of law is, in my opinion, akin to protectionism. Let me explain: on one hand we constantly endeavor to improve transportation and the moving of goods. But as the obstacles to trade are eliminated, we find that trade is increased. In order to “protect” our labor, taxes or tariffs are placed on the products that are thus exchanged. It is essentially the same as building a highway between two cities in order to make travel less expensive, and then charging a toll that entirely replaces the expense saved by the highway. In the end, it brings no increase in efficiency. The parallel is that while we have advanced methods of storing and promulgating information, we replace any advantage gained in that respect with legislation that restricts the flow of information (such as our oppressive copyright laws). On the one hand the laws of nature no longer inhibit us from accumulating knowledge, but on the other hand the laws of men make it more difficult than ever.
Until the digital revolution, intellectual property was rarely separated from its physical manifestation. By that I mean that if you wanted to read a book, you bought the physical product, and the price of the intellectual property was hidden within the price of its materials. But when the medium and the actual content became separated, suddenly the issue of intellectual property came into being. But how can a product be sold without a transference of something? If I purchase an e-book, it costs the publisher nothing to sell one to someone else, because from the one original copy, an infinite amount of copies can be grafted. It costs something to produce the original e-book, perhaps, but I am merely buying a copy of it. First we had a fiat currency, which the government can conjure up at whim and promulgate for profit, and now we also have a fiat product with which publishers can do the same.
The only argument against the public domain is the protection of the writers and artists and programmers who create the work in the first place. It should be noted, however, that in many cases they are not even the ones who own the copyrights. A poverty stricken musician could, perhaps, argue that he needed copyrights to survive, but how can a corporation of people who did not produce the work in the beginning argue the same? “But”, one says, “the artist sold the copyright to the corporation by his own will, and that is how he supports himself.” Perhaps, but that is assuming that a piece of intellectual property – in essence, a thought – can be traded as if it were a physical entity, as if there were no difference between it and a piece of land or a car. Yet by its very definition it is something that is not tangible, something that has no value outside of its communication with a human brain. If I hear a song on the radio, and afterwards listen to it by memory, am I violating its copyright? And if not, what is the difference between storing it in the human memory, and storing it on some physical medium – or inhuman memory – when it is not that physical medium that is protected by the copyright?
The basic question is this: is a thought a piece of property, is an entity that exists beyond its physical manifestation the same as one which only is its physical manifestation? If I buy a chair, I am paying for the materials and the labor that went into the individual chair. But if I buy an e-book, or an mp3, what am I paying for? There is no cost for materials, and the same labor that went into making what I bought also went into what everyone else bought. If that were the measure of its price, e-books would cost an insignificant amount.
I will conclude with saying that it is shameful that there are so many children (and adults) around the world who have received an insufficient education for no other reason than that they couldn’t afford it, when all the knowledge of the world could be given away freely in a digital format. Knowledge is power, as they say, and right now knowledge is kept from the people through the oppression of copyright laws and the forces that maintain them. But I have hope, for there is a time coming when the liberation of literature will lead to the liberation of the people. Long live the public domain.