As part of my work, I spend my time dealing with protected content: what I write is either copyrighted (such as my articles for the MacDevCenter) or released under a Creative Commons license (such as this very blog), what I develop has to fall into the hands of someone (usually the company that hired me) and the communication work I do for my clients draws on works they own, I own, my company owns and artists own. In other words, copyright issues are something I have to deal with daily, if not more often, and sometimes with potentially serious consequences.
Yet, I almost never think about copyright. Why? Because, to me, owning, sharing and stealing are facts inherent to life: they’re important, they require some thinking about but they shouldn’t swallow up our whole time — much like a cook making a croque-monsieur should ensure he doesn’t put too much cheese on the sandwich, lest he wants the grill to catch on fire, but shouldn’t let cheese divert his attention from the careful ham warming up business at hand.
I like to believe I’m a fundamentally honest person: I don’t knowingly steal goods, services, or ideas from others. But I know my limits and I’m sure I have already broken the law without realizing it. I’m sure I have already used an idea in a campaign, a blog or an article that belonged to someone without my knowing. I’m sure, somewhere on my hard drive are two copies of a font or a picture for which I only bought one license. Why? Because I’m human, I can get forgetful or carried out by an idea. Yet, I haven’t engaged in illegal activities, I am not tangibly hurting anyone and, so far, the cops haven’t rung my doorbell to ask me questions.
As far as I can tell, we all more or less work in the same way. We’re honest but not maniac. It has served us well, for generations, and the world has continued to invent, innovate, create and publish. Society and life have gone forward, and some of the most capitalistic societies have been built over the past century, the very century that supposedly is seeing an explosion of theft and stealing of ideas.
Now, I’m sure some people do illegal things. Downloading an entire music library and never paying for it is theft. Stealing a competitor’s idea, packaging it in your product and making money out of it without having incurred any costs of R&D is stealing. There are laws governing theft (be it of a material good or of an idea) and they can be used for good.
However, I am afraid we have crossed the line into sheer obsession. Both us, the people who are accused of stealing by corporations, lawyers, governments and them, the governments, lawyers and corporations who spend their time accusing people of stealing. In my aggregator, I have about 60 articles daily popping up about the right or wrong of Creative Common licenses, about Google’s right to scan books, about Intel’s DRM schemes, about whether or not TiVo is allowed to do what they do, about Linux vs. Windows…
All the time, the question is brought back to the lowest of level: who is “right” and who is “stealing”? Well, we’re all stealing. We, as human beings, care about one single thing: satisfying our needs and the ones of those deeply connected to us. Truth is, deep down we don’t care in the least about the TiVo CEO, about starving authors or EPSON cartridges. We want to feel dry and warm, eat and reproduce. Of course, there is a strong moral layer that teaches us the difference between right and wrong and this layer is fundamental, essential to the constitution of an organized society: that layer makes a society what it is and separates it from anarchy. Nevertheless, it is bound to slip from time to time — and this does not obligatorily turn us into rapists, murderers or Bad People™.
Theft and ownership haven’t been put in question by technology. Wondering whether Linux is better than Windows because it is open source isn’t far away from wondering whether we should buy a Parker or a Waterman fountain pen — for those who don’t know, Waterman advocates the open source cartridge format of the fountain pen world while Parker insists on a proprietary one, and these companies have been around longer than Linux. Does releasing our works under a Creative Commons license, under a text deeply connected to a specific country’s jurisdiction, even make sense on a network like the Internet? Technology allows for faster, easier theft but it also allows for faster, easier compensation. Police used to hit you on the head and strap you to a chair for counterfeiting books, now they just stuff the files with DRM. The game goes faster, at a larger scale but, in the end, it hasn’t changed much.
I believe in the good of Open Source, Creative Common licenses, the free sharing of information, etc… All that is great and I have said it many times. But I don’t believe in procrastination. What if, for just a while, we stopped advocating Open Source and started building it? What if, instead of advocating the free sharing of information, we promoted it? How much more energy can we lose commenting on the acts of multibillion corporations that, not only can do great things we all praise, but won’t budge an inch because a sea of bloggers criticize them? Neither Google nor Microsoft have a reason to change because they’re criticized — whether the critics are founded or not. They may have a reason to change however if it comes to light that their business model no longer works or that consumers prefer a competitor.