Leigh Beadon: Ideas and creative output have no such natural property (as physical things)

The idea of ‘property’ is reinforced by society, but it stems from something natural: I can defend my property with a pointy stick. Society comes together and agrees that, because we don’t all want to be standing guard all day, we’ll treat each others’ property as if it’s defended – and appoint a few men with pointy sticks to enforce that contract. But it all extends from natural principles: an item of property is rivalrous, it’s excludable – only one of us an have it.

Ideas and creative output have no such natural property. If you write a song, the only way you can /naturally/ control it is to keep it to yourself. If you play it for me, it’s in my head – not only can you not take it back, but I can’t even give it back if I want to. My having it does not lessen how much you have it, and my passing it along does not lessen how much I have it, so on into infinity.

That is a fundamental difference between ideas and property. And I believe it has serious ethical implications, going right down to the basis of why human language and culture exists at all.

Now, as a society, we can decide that we want a mechanism for rewarding creativity, and we can all agree to treat ideas with some of the aspects of property. I can’t give you your song back, but I can promise not to share it. We can come together and turn that into laws and structures and licensing schemes. But it’s artificial to its core – it isn’t built on top of a natural right like property. There’s nothing wrong with that – but it IS a societally granted right. Thus I have a very hard time with people who talk about artists having an /inherent/ right to payment for /every copy/. It’s not inherent. It’s granted by society, which includes the artist themselves granting it to others, and as such society determines how far those rights extend – and then artists must determine whether or not they will share their work under those conditions. Not the other way around.

Now, it can be argued that too much of society is rescinding artists’ rights too much, and this will lead to decreases in quality/quantity of art — though I’m not sure that’s true. Part of the reason is that the notion of artists’ rights have been heavily abused by companies – what was once a brief commercial monopoly of a few years that required you to opt-in by filing a copyright registration, is now a life+70yrs exclusive monopoly that gets passed on to your kids, is automatically granted to everything (even this comment I’m writing right now) and has no official legal opt-out method. From Disney being the authors of copyright extension several times in U.S. history, to the many companies around the world that have attacked the exceptions to copyright like fair use/fair dealing and caused them to dwindle in the courts, large commercial entities have turned copyright into a one-sided mechanism of control over the vast majority of human culture. This crashed into the internet — technology that created really beautiful culture-sharing and participation opportunities that have never existed before — and the companies told the people that virtually everything they do is illegal. And so people lost all respect for copyright.