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Copyright versus Copyleft

I was working in a publication firm in the 1950s, when we got one of the first state-of-the-art Xerox machines, model 940, I think it was. And it was huge, perhaps four feet on a side. It made copies from one original at a time. You couldn’t buy them; you had to lease them, and it wasn’t cheap. The Xerox service man came out periodically to clean the selenium drum and wipe up the powdered plastic that sifted through the inside. The only employee allowed to make copies on it was Betty, who had to be trained by Xerox to be able to replenish toner and paper and clear the inevitable paper jams. When it ran, it smelled of ozone. We were proud of that machine; we could create whole books in our own company (in small numbers, of course).

That copier pointed up a legal issue for us—copyright. Being a publication house, we were fairly familiar with the issue in general. We had to get permission to include previously published text or graphics in the books and advertising material we produced. We were accustomed to sending things out for Photostats or more expensive camera copies of material we needed to use. But never before had it been so easy, so simple, to just copy something. The whole idea fascinated me.

In the mid-sixties, Marshall McLuhen pointed out how easy it had become to copy almost anything, anytime. “Instant Stealing” he called it, a play on the marketing phrase “Instant Publishing.” Xerographic copiers appeared everywhere, even in libraries. It was another ten years or so before Congress got around to revising the copyright statutes. By that time it wasn’t only xerographic copying that brought their attention to the problem. All kinds of photographic reproductions were getting cheaper, including direct-image printing plates. Bootleg copies of popular books were beginning to appear in large numbers from Taiwan and other parts of Asia .

The growing popularity of audio Compact Cassette tapes stimulated the copying of music, as well. For a short time, one could take a recorded tape into a shop almost anywhere in the United States and walk out with a duplicate, no questions asked. Copyright was becoming a major business concern simply because nearly anyone could now copy anything they wanted.

The development of computers, operating with digital information rather than analog (a ruler is analog, a calculator is digital) brought on the present crisis of copyright. And the rise of the Internet made the transmission of digital information both swift and accurate beyond the wildest dreams of the people who first enacted laws governing the copying and use of other people’s material.

The idea of copyright is to reserve the legal right of an author (in general, the originator) to the use of the fruits of her or his effort and talent. Few people would argue, even today, that Tom Clancy should not be entitled to his millions—after all, he did create the books that so many people were willing to buy. For someone else to make Xerox copies of his work and sell them as their own seems unfair. Even if they left Tom Clancy’s name on the books and sold them, they are stealing money that seems rightfully his own. (Notice the distinction between the last two sentences: selling something originated by someone else as though it’s your own work, versus simply selling it with the originator’s identification, but keeping the proceeds to yourself. That distinction will be discussed later on.)

Graphic images were included in the protection of copyright when it became possible to copy them mechanically—that is, by photography. Before that, it was not unusual for painters, for example, to paint copies of famous works or works by famous painters. It was a way to learn the art of painting. Only when someone tried to pass off their copies as originals did they run into trouble. Painting, whether one is creating an original or copying one by another painter, takes a lot of skill and a lot of time, so the incidence of forgery was, by today’s standards, rather rare. In fact, there are admitted copies of paintings now hanging in prominent museums, albeit with appropriate notice of their lack of authenticity. With the development of photography, the skill needed to produce a copy of someone else’s photograph is relatively low. And the need for protection is therefore much greater than before.

The advent of computer software, especially in the mass market, brought its own issues of forgery and theft. Creating software is a difficult and time-consuming task. Copying software is even easier than re-publishing a book with your neighborhood Xerox machine. In the beginning of the industry, much software was developed by enthusiastic amateurs, and a lot of it was freely shared among that small group without charge or obligation. Very soon, however, young amateurs became young entrepreneurs, and time was equated to money. Some became very wealthy after they learned to sell their software and protect it from others. Naturally, their wealth inspired others to do the same. Copyright was now a huge issue in a rapidly growing industry.

To some people, software programs are a different thing from Tom Clancy’s novels. When you buy a book, it’s yours to keep or give away, even sell again if you wish. When you buy a copy of Microsoft Word, you don’t own it, but simply the right to use it. You can’t even give it away without Microsoft’s permission. Until just recently, however, it was possible to copy a program without them knowing it. In China and the rest of Southeast Asia , it’s still possible to go into a store and buy a disc full of programs for just the cost of making the copy. When I purchased a new computer last month, I could not install Microsoft Windows XP without getting the installation verified over the Internet. They not only know which copy I have, they regularly check the contents of my computer, “to keep the software up to date and working properly.” If I were to sell my computer to someone else, Microsoft would know it, eventually. Because each computer has a unique identifying code built into it, they would even know if I transferred the hard drive, with its software, into another machine.

All this, some people say, is a continuing degradation of our right to our own property. And it’s a diminution of our ability to be creative—after all, in the heady early days of personal computers, a lot of people were experimenting and sharing results and competing on the level of ideas, all in a search for what the computer could do for us all. After all, everything that the computer is to our society is the result of the individual work of thousands, even millions, of individuals, building upon what had gone before. Microsoft Word, to them, is not a Tom Clancy novel; it is a stepping stone to something new and better. Restricting that movement to what one company thinks is appropriate is limiting the rest of society in an exciting and beneficial journey.

So some of these people have begun a movement to try to place software in particular into the public domain, available to anyone who wants to use it or modify it. The goal is to re-establish the sense of adventure of individuals working together to make a better world. The idea is compatible with the idea that the Internet itself is to become an open thing, a tool of free people everywhere. The name “Copyleft” has been given to the idea, and ultimately its promoters hope to expand the idea to all kinds of information—written, musical, and graphic. Not that Tom Clancy has to lose his grip on a very good source of income; he simply couldn’t turn over his rights to a corporation that would try to protect the source forever. Eventually, and sooner rather than later, these people say, all the worthwhile vehicles of knowledge and beauty should revert to the people. After all, they protest, where would our civilization be if the writings of Plato and Aristotle were protected by copyright? Or the stirring song “Amazing Grace,” given to us by John Newton before the American Revolution?

The Copyleft people are making an arrangement whereby authors and others can declare their works to belong to the public domain, but with a hitch: anyone can use them, modify them if they wish, “publish” them for money—but they may not attempt subsequently to protect them by copyright. Lawyers are currently working to put this idea into a legal form that will be upheld by the courts. It’s a voluntary thing, not something that would be forced upon everyone. At least not for now.

To me, it seems a bit Quixotic, a not-too-subtle strike at the windmills of Microsoft, et al.[1] Still, I’ve sided with the underdog most of my life, even when the underdog didn’t always seem very reasonable in its stand. As a writer, I want to protect my own work against anyone who might want to profit from it themselves (good luck!). Most of what I write is posted on my Web site, available for anyone to copy. I would not knowingly use the words or images of someone else for my own gain—that is, someone still living. I can feel sympathy for other individuals much more intensely than for impersonal corporations. I seldom hesitate to make copies from my music collection, to give to friends or relatives. Strictly speaking, several of my favorite software programs have been copied illegally from discs purchased legitimately by my wife. (After all, I reason, I’m her employee, and I use them for her benefit—sometimes.) But I would not sell such a copy.

A few years ago, I became curious about that famous quotation from John Donne, “No man is an island . . .” and I inquired on the Internet for its source. Someone pointed me to a Web site in which all of Donne’s Meditations were posted, and I easily downloaded the one that included the quote. It not only saved me a trip to the public library, it gave me the opportunity to use any or all of it in whatever essay I might write. I’m aware of how special that opportunity is, not only for me but for everyone.

Several universities are collaborating to place online all of the classic literature of our entire civilization. It’s a huge task, but a wonderful vision.

Somewhere between that vision and the right for Tom Clancy to enjoy the fruits of his labor lies a broad plain of uncertainty, waiting for us as a society to mark the paths and neighborhoods of a truly worthy culture.

[1] Coincidentally, at this very place in my writing, I received a notice that Microsoft had downloaded an update to my Internet browser, and requested that I permit it to be installed. I wasn’t even connected, I thought, to the Internet.

Donald Skiff, February 8, 2004

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