Monthly Archives: May 2011

Ideas are not property

In the days before the G8 summit in France last week, French president Nicolas Sarkozy decided to invite influential people from the technology and content fields to discuss the role of the internet in society in a forum dubbed eG8.  Unfortunately what Sarkozy had in mind was less of an open discussion on modern communications and more of a rubber stamp on his intention to increase control over content and copyright.  Sarkozy has been a strong proponent of so-called “three strikes” rules that would ban people from using the net if they are accused of copyright infringement three times.

Note that was accused not convicted. Major media companies have shown no aversion over the past decade to accuse people of theft and infringement often in cases where the appearance of a piece of media was merely incidental such as a radio playing a song in the background of a video on youtube. Companies like Viacom have gone further by suing Youtube for serving up infringing material that in many cases has been posted by agents of Viacom itself for promotional purposes.

The major media companies clearly have no credibility in this game, nor does Sarkozy.

“Now that the Internet is an integral part of most people’s live, it would be contradictory to exclude governments from this huge forum,” said Sarkozy. “Nobody could nor should forget that these governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies. To forget this is to take the risk of democratic chaos and hence anarchy.”

Here Sarkozy couldn’t be more wrong.  Even in a democracy – or especially in a democracy – government is NOT the sole legitimate representative of the people. The people themselves in a modern country can be a far better representative of their own will than a government that is typically more beholden to huge corporate donors than to its own constituents. To imply otherwise indicates that control is far more important that freedom.  Freedom is messy and people like Sarkozy and the heads of big business need to learn to deal with that.

Thankfully not everyone on hand was simply a lacky for Sarkozy and the entrenched incumbents.  Among the luminaries participating in eG8 were the great prof. Lawrence Lessig and musician/writer/activist John Perry Barlow.  Lessig’s comments about the importance of taking a more hands-off approach to copyright and the internet are in the video at the top of this post.

Barlow was on panel with the French culture minister and the heads of 20th Century Fox, Universal Music France, Bertelsmann, and a French publisher.  Those other participants defended the need to protect the works they own, as opposed to created,  since none of them are actual creators of anything.  They are merely salespeople. After hearing everyone else speak Barlow summed up with the fundamental truth that IDEAS ARE NOT PROPERTY

I may be one of very few people in this room who actually makes his living personally by creating what these gentlemen are pleased to call “intellectual property.” I don’t regard my expression as a form of property. Property is something that can be taken from me. If I don’t have it, somebody else does.

Expression is not like that. The notion that expression is like that is entirely a consequence of taking a system of expression and transporting it around, which was necessary before there was the Internet, which has the capacity to do this infinitely at almost no cost.

This is a concept that Lessig has also been expressing for many years and it’s one of the driving forces behind creative commons. Unlike tangible property, when someone else uses or expresses your idea, it doesn’t preclude you from using it yourself.  What makes it special is what you do with it.