This topic considers issues surrounding copyright, the concept of property and what is "ownable," and the abuse of copyright holders particularly when ownership is asserted on information pertaining to Scripture.
- Trespass not TheftApril 21, 2012 11:39 am
- The Coming War on General Purpose ComputationJanuary 17, 2012 1:18 pm
- Public Domain DayJanuary 17, 2012 1:12 pm
- Piracy in the House of Commons 1841October 25, 2011 3:02 pm
- The Case for PiracyOctober 22, 2011 9:21 am
- CorporatismJanuary 4, 2011 11:05 am
- Grasping CopyrightFebruary 2, 2010 8:07 am
- Why I Don’t Like the Apple iPadJanuary 29, 2010 9:43 am
- A Christian and a Pirate?December 15, 2009 8:44 pm
- What rights make sense?November 24, 2009 11:21 am
Topic Summary - The Proper Bounds of Intellectual Property
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Since my last post I’ve been asked by a number of people to post some thoughts about a Christian view of copyright. This is not an attempt to fully present that view (it is still somewhat in flux) but to set some initial bounds and directions for the discussion.
In a subsequent post I will look at a positive understanding of Intellectual Property – what we can say it is, or should be. This is the area where my thoughts are still being formed.
In this post I want to look at some aspects where I have come to some reasonably definite conclusions. In general these definites describe places where IP should not be asserted and lead us to ask the questions about where the boundary should be set.
Here are the pretty-much-definites,
1. Intellectual Property as it is commonly understood is an extra-biblical category. Intellectual Property is not “property” in the sense of the 8th commandment “Do not steal.”
Infringement of real property has an inherent sense of deprivation – if I steal your cow, you have one less cow and your family starves. If, however, I hear you tell a story at someone’s campfire one night and retell it the next night at my own campfire I have deprived you of nothing – you still have your story.
The rights and responsibilities around IP are usually not in a direct moral category but in an indirect one. That is, it is wrong for Christians to deliberately infringe IP in today’s world because it is right for us to respect the law of the land. It is not because it is necessarily inherently wrong – the harming or killing of someone would be considered wrong, whatever the law says.
However, I would suggest that fraud has an inherent moral character and some IP infringement, such as plagiarism, is inherently fraudulent and therefore directly wrong.
This means that your average “You wouldn’t steal a car” message on a DVD (and even Colin Buchanan‘s quoting of the decalogue at the head of his DVDs) misses the point.
A good question to ask, therefore, is – at what point does IP become, directly, an issue of morality rather than a simple application of the way society has chosen to structure itself?
In a fallen world it is a dangerous test – but moral categories tend to be innate to us. So listen to your gut:
- Should someone be punished for claiming someone else’s essay as their own? Yes, that is fraudulent, a true “stealing” of IP.
- Should Men-At-Work be forced to pay royalties for using a riff from that Kookaburra in a Gum Tree song in Land Downunder? No, get a life people.
- Is there a difference between someone borrowing a mate’s CD/mp3 collection, and someone flogging off bootleg copies of pop-music-crap in order to make a buck using someone else’s name? Yes… but what is it… and does it matter?
- If I legally download a song should I be prevented from placing it on a CD, playing it while other people are around, listening to it in public above a certain volume, being able to play it in five years time? Well there’s nothing necessarily morally wrong with doing those things…
2. Gospel-focussed material should be free. I’ve talked about this in a previous post (together with its comments). We Christian workers are fundamentally in the content-production industry. We write, we speak, we teach. With regard to this, there are two points to make
a) Christian gospel-workers should understand that whatever we produce is a gift from God to us and through us and to assert control and “ownership” is theologically incoherent. To insist on the right to make money (even to “meet costs” – although that’s a greyer area) from one’s content is simonious anathema at worst and missiologically stupid at best.
I do not charge people to hear my sermons, why should I charge them for my other content? Yes, it costs money to print books, stamp DVD’s etc. and there are stewardship issues so that you don’t go bankrupt – but the free conduit of the Internet (the catalyst for much of the broader IP debate) should cause Christians to jump for joy that they can now give away their content for free!
The Biblical practice of remuneration for gospel work is primarily one of patronage – a stipend, gift, donation so that you may be free to give of yourself, not a wage so that you can earn your keep.
- Driscoll has it right.
- Careforce and Sojourners have it wrong.
(The problem here is that Careforce Lifekeys is good, so I fork over the money for the sake of the ministry. Sojourners? Meh. Whatever. We have permission in this diocese to share a subscription to Sojourners, but what’s the point in having access to information that I can’t point other people to unless they pay.)
- And when it comes to the German Bible Society – well what can I say? The next time we upgrade Bibles at church it will not be NIV. And the next time the Bible Society asks me for money… well I’ll probably be generous, but I could say “You demand money for access to your product, why do you also ask for donations? Freedom will beget freedom. Show me your faith.”
b) IP restrictions in general are bad for Christian proclamation. I listen, watch and read widely as I prepare my sermons. I have been known to, ahem, “borrow” an illustration or two. I have been known to read quotes from books in order to make a point. God help us if these sources were to stand on their IP rights.
I know churches who would be bankrupt tomorrow if Driscoll started charging royalties As an Anglican I’m not, technically, allowed to quote from our own A Prayer Book for Australia (at least, while using a data projector) without paying a royalty – surely that is an indefensible position.
Should we be open to question about our ethical purity if we quote from a newspaper in our sermon or use brand names in our allusions to popular culture? How about if I read out the lyrics to a popular (or unpopular) song? What about if I hum the theme song to a TV show to make a point?
The point is that Christian ministry is very rarely helped by general IP enforcement, if at all. In fact, as non-commercial but public operatives we are often in the ugly danger zone of inadvertent (and otherwise) breaches of IP rights all the time. We need to have something principled to say that points out the proper boundaries of Intellectual Property lest we all have our mouths closed by the assertion of ownership on what might come out of them.
The questions to determine the boundary of IP here are questions revolving around the desirability of IP restrictions. When are they actually useful to society?
3. The Ownership of Ideas (e.g. Software Patents) is evil. Most people consider IP in terms of copyright which is, in broad simplistic terms, the assertion of ownership over a creative, expressive work. There is also a recognition of patents – that someone who invents a novel machine will have exclusive rights to the production of such a machine over a period of time.
In recent (and not quite so recent) times the definition of “machine” and “expression” have become very loose. This is reaching the point where ownership is asserted not on expressions or implementations, but on processes and concepts. Amazon’s patent of the concept of “One-Click Buying” is a famous example.
The ownership of concepts is dangerously close to owning thoughts. I hope that is self-evidently wrong.
But there is no disconnect in the line between the ownership of expression and the ownership of idea. Here are the questions that help us determine the boundary by asking what is ownable?
Where’s the line between taking a photo of someone’s artwork and applying some of the ideas of someone’s artwork in inspiration for producing your own? What do you actually own? The arrangement of brushstrokes (in a painting) or an ordered sequence of numbers (in the case of an mp3), the broader audio or visual experience, the concrete sense of what is being expressed, the simple sense, the abstract sense, the idea… Where’s the line?
I am not a hairy smelly socialist. I don’t think it should be a free for all. But I think society works best when information is considered to be more in common, more free than not. But the detail of that is for another time.