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Worlds apart

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I continue to find myself in an interesting in-between region of the intellectual-property debate, where I both agree and disagree with most of the people I interact with, in two very different camps. I would characterize (but to some extent, unfortunately, caricature) the two sides thusly:

On one side are the Alpha Geeks, who by and large appear to hate all restrictions on copying of any kind of data. In more or less the same camp are the millions of people who feel that there's nothing wrong with sharing music and distributing pirated ebooks. The people at one end of this group tend to see copyright laws as outmoded and confining, and see any extension of them as a step on the road to a fascist future where no art can ever be created except by megacorps.

On the other side are the old-guard sf authors, who by and large appear to be terrified that their work will be distributed in mass quantities without reimbursement or other benefit, and that they'll be unable to make any money from their work and therefore will have to stop writing. (The RIAA and Disney and such are in a related camp, but I'm much less sympathetic to them, and I don't interact with them; I'm focusing here on individual creators, mostly authors of prose fiction.) The people at the far end of this group tend to claim that any reduction of copyright laws is a step on the road to an anarchist future where no art can ever again be created by ordinary people who need to earn a living.

(I hasten to note that of course there are creators in the former camp, and of course there are non-creators in the latter camp, and the line between creator and non-creator is an arbitrary and problematic one in the first place. But bear with me, and think of the above characterizations as overgeneralizations with some grains of truth in them.)

I spend most of my time with people in the former group, and so despite my general agreement with most of the Alpha Geek philosophy, I end up spending a lot of time arguing in favor of the creators'-rights position. I do believe that creators should have control over their work; whereas I suspect that most of my friends (and most people in general) honestly, deep down, don't really believe in the concept of intellectual property, of a creator "owning" some aspect of what they've created. (I have a lot more to say about that, but it'll have to wait for another time; for now, I'll just note some of my phrasing in this entry may end up sounding derogatory to one side or another, but honestly isn't meant to be; merely attempting to be descriptive.) And so I end up coming across as a copyright fascist, whose lifelong adamant anti-piracy stance has resulted in more arguments with close friends of mine than anything else I can think of. Despite the fact that I'm wholeheartedly in favor of free distribution of art as long as the artist is explicitly okay with it.

But then I wander over to the SFWA newsgroups, and I see authors saying derogatory things about Lawrence Lessig, and getting panicky about anything that hints at possible alternatives to the current copyright system.

There's a bit of cognitive dissonance there for me. Most of the time I hear (and largely agree with) people who are unhappy about various recent legal developments, from the DCMA (hiss!) to the Supreme Court decision in the Eldred case. But then I hear some of the authors talk about this stuff, and some of them seem to feel that Harlan Ellison is right about all this, that there's a vast horde of evil pirates out there trying to cheat them of their livelihood, and that any legal measures that can be taken to stem the tide are a blow for authors' rights.

I think the two sides are coming from vastly different worldviews and belief systems, and I'm not sure how to bridge that gap. My approach tends to be to argue against the parts I don't agree with on both sides, but so far that hasn't won me any friends. I'd like to try to provide a voice of moderation, to say to both sides: alarmist rhetoric doesn't help, it only makes people on the other side more upset, let's sit down and talk about this. But I don't know where to begin.

I suspect I've annoyed more than one friend with this posting already. If so, I apologize. I recognize that the issues are many and complex, and that most people who've given any thought to the matter at all feel their own opinions are justified; I definitely don't mean to denigrate anybody's beliefs here. Mostly just musing.

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