The never-ending debate about intellectual “property” is these days mostly focused on digital data – movies, software, DNA sequences, whatever. That lends a certain air of unreality to it. A few years ago I had to write a short article reminding people that “cyberspace” is just a metaphor, and the debate is still about the ownership of real physical things.
So if you’re interested in the issue, don’t miss a story this week at Al-Jazeera about the lawsuit in India over universities photocopying textbooks to provide course materials for their students.
The publishers want to stop them, and are claiming more than $100,000 in damages. The universities claim it’s a clear case of “fair use”, and a range of academics (including many whose interests the publishers claim to be protecting) have agreed with them, telling the publishers to “take seriously this strong statement by authors and academics that you do not speak in their name.”
Partisans in the debate, of course, will each take this to confirm their own views. Supporters of intellectual “property” will say it demonstrates that their opponents aren’t just interested in swapping music on the internet but will come after books and other physical artefacts as well.
Opponents of copyright law will cite it as another example of how the law stifles the dissemination of ideas and hurts the very people it claims to help, benefiting only lawyers and multinational corporations.
I made my view clear back in 2007:
But unlike ordinary cases of property, what they want to own are things you’ve already paid for: the physical stuff your CDs are made of, and the electrons on your computer. They want to make you pay again, and again, each time you share them with someone else or use them in different ways.
No-one would give any credence to a manufacturer of, say, cricket bats who wanted a fresh payment for every child who played with the same bat. Yet the likes of Sony and Microsoft have got just such a racket going, and are allowed to get away with their crazy vocabulary of “property”, “theft” and “piracy”.