Whilst I did a piece recently on the real origins of content “piracy”, Paul currently has a lovely piece over at Never Trust a Hippy on the real origins of copyright. Interestingly, a commenter responds thus:
Another example of ideas being far older than one thought
And here, in far fewer words than I could ever manage, is the prime justification for there existing a public domain into which all thought finally ends up residing.
This is what I recently had to say on the subject:
[…] I appreciate the need for reasonable periods of copyright, but before we support “original works” we have to understand the process that leads to their creation – and recognise what any creator owes to a previous generation of creators. There is now a massive hole in the public domain, absolutely unheard of in previous times, where nothing but nothing can legally be done to have a creative conversation with, for example, the film industry – an industry which has appropriated with every moral and legal right to do so public domain works from the 19th century for its own wonderful purposes but has refused to return its own property created thus back to the public domains of the 20th and 21st centuries.
And whilst those who are unhappy with related Google-like dynamics may indeed have a complex case to answer, we shouldn’t mix what are essentially issues of trademark and/or copyright law with matters that relate to the almost social contract that is the public domain.
I read an interesting piece in the Guardian yesterday whilst waiting for a train at Oxenholme in the Lake District. It was arguing that the research of publicly-funded scientists should end up – as soon as practicable – in the public domain via the legal figure of open access. As the scientific journals and their publishers added very little real value to the scientific process, and in the meantime through their paywalls made access to new ideas evermore expensive and distant (I remember a calculation made by Lawrence Lessig recently which had him hunting down online documents to allow him to understand a family member’s illness better – if he hadn’t have been a top scholar at a US university, it would have cost him over $400 to access the information), so the argument in terms of a societal benefit to automatically place in the public domain such publicly-funded data has become considerably stronger.
But I’d go even further – as you jolly well might expect. I’d argue that such principles should not only be applied to publicly-funded scientists but also to all elected figures who reach positions of prominence or otherwise on the backs of the voters. Without the voters and their desire to delegate responsibility, a prime minister or secretary of state would be absolutely nothing politically speaking. When politicians give exclusive interviews to national newspapers and other media, such organisations hug very close to themselves the content thus generated. But, in reality, they have no right to at all: arguably the words and thoughts and ideas of our politicians already belong, in very strict measure, to ourselves:
David Cameron wants to snoop into your emails, SMS text messages and telephone calls. He is bringing forward powers to enhance the big brother state in exactly the opposite way he said he would do when he was opposition leader. But guess what, I have news for Mr Cameron. In 3 days time, I discover whether or not I will be given the right to snoop into his SMS text messaging. […]
This does, of course, have implications for open government movements across the world. But it is only the application of a very simple and fair principle: what you get out of the system, at some in the (near and reasonable) future you put back in.
As they say: what goes around, comes around.
So why should copyright, scientists, public figures and the public domain be any different?