Abolishment of Copyright Laws Promotes
Social Justice

By: Thomas Brainard, Suihan Deng, Matthew Miller


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“Mrs. [Sarah Seabury] Ward, a 66-year-old sculptor and retired schoolteacher, received notice on Sept. 11 from the Recording Industry
Association of America that she was being accused of engaging in millions of dollars worth of copyright infringement, downloading thousands of songs and sharing them with the world through a popular file-sharing
program called KaZaA… Not only does nobody else use her computer in more than a passing way, the computer, an Apple Macintosh, is not even capable of running the KaZaA file-swapping program. And though the lawsuit against her said that she was heavily into the works of hip-hop artists like Snoop Dogg, Ms. Ward says her musical tastes run to Celtic
and folk.” 1
“In a lawsuit filed in January, the RIAA accused 83-year old Gertrude Walton of sharing over 700 pop, rock and rap songs under the alias "smittenedkitten." What the RIAA didn 't know is that Walton had passed away in December following a long illness. Her daughter, Robin
Chianumba… told the Charleston Gazette that her mother refused to
even have a computer in the house.” 2

Intellectual property protection is a big issue in the world today, but issues with patents and trademarks are too much to cover in the scope of this paper, so our focus is on copyright laws. The two reports above are examples of actions taken by copyright owners against people who infringe on their copyrights. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was able to take these actions because they are protected under the current copyright laws. Copyright laws should be abolished on the basis of social justice because copyrights hinder creation, thus slowing social progress and reducing the pool of goods that society can enjoy. Social progress can come from the arts and media sector as well as the technology and information sector.
It is our belief that if copyright laws did not exist, it would be better for our society as a whole, as more people could openly and freely create, thereby adding to the overall pool of goods and ideas for the public to enjoy. Just as open source programming code is gaining popularity; the same type of thinking is beginning to spread to other areas, as digital information has naturally come to the forefront. Due to the amount of exposure that copyrights and intellectual property laws have seen recently with the explosion of digital sharing on the Internet, government agencies are becoming engulfed in trying to find a complicated solution to the problem while they could solve it rather easily. They are trying to solve this problem but they have not been able to because they are continuing to look at it from the ever so popular view of fiscal gains. They will argue that if the copyright is abolished the incentive for people to create and contribute to the public pool of goods will go away right along with it. The truth is that people create simply for the satisfaction of having created something as well as for recognition in creating it. Bell worked on creating the telephone and Edison created the light bulb to shed light when there could not have been before. Both did so without the sole intent of how they would financially benefit off what they have created but with the thinking of how to continue to progress as a society and as people. The existence of “starving” artists, open source programming, fansubs and scientific researchers show that people do not need financial incentive to add information to the public sphere.
Progressing through recent history is a pattern of increasing copyright protection on nearly anything and everything that is created. Supporters are most likely to argue that copyrights need to be in place so that the creators can realize financial benefits from their works. If they were to be abolished this would not be possible and they could not make a living. The problem with this argument is that the benefits being mentioned are only referring to financial benefits, which is really the main reason that copyright laws exist to begin with. With this type of mental model people are only looking at how they can profit from their creations rather than how society as whole can benefit from what they may create. This self-centered mentality has made our society completely entrenched in the fiscal rewards resulting from our creations rather than the internal rewards of accomplishment and success from the creation. It now seems that people only protect their works from the fear of not being able to benefit financially from their creation or that someone else will. With the current copyrights, people are creating for the sole purpose of making money. These creators only need the copyright protection based upon the thinking that all that matters is how “I” can benefit rather than the social benefits of the creation.
The main problem faced by copyright owners is piracy because it reduces their profits. Piracy is deemed unethical because it is stealing. However, if copyright laws did not exist, there would be no stealing since no one would own the rights to those works. The broader idea of consequentialism in that the ends justify the means already establishes that enjoying downloaded material (ends) justifies the act of downloading the material (means) but it also states that actions that produce the best consequences for the largest amount of people are the ethical ones. The existence of copyright laws is the root of the existence of copyright law violators, but if the laws do not exist neither do the violators and no one would be fined or sent to jail. Deontology is based on the idea that there are a set of rules that everyone must follow, such as the rule that no one should ever lie. It also follows the concept that we should act in a way that furthers the idea that people are free and rational beings. Without copyright laws, people would be free and open to create anything they want by using anything they want, and would not be stealing in the process.
The US media propagates the idea that the people who infringe upon copyright laws are stealing from the creators thus costing them billions of dollars every year. A computer program launched in 1999 that allowed the easy transfer of music as a peer to peer (P2P) network was the beginning of an entirely new way for anyone with a computer to acquire music in the form of MP3s. This program is known as Napster. Much of the current attention placed on music file sharing and copyright law is due to the huge popularity of the Napster software. In September of 2003, the RIAA launched its first lawsuits against specific individuals who were using Napster for their downloading. We are not discussing the ethics of these lawsuits but rather trying to demonstrate that if copyright laws did not exist, the RIAA could not have taken such actions. Of the 261 lawsuits filed by the RIAA, some of the victims included: a 12 year old honors student, a 71 year old grandfather, an unemployed paint contractor on disability, and an aged grandmother. 3 If these individuals had reproduced CD’s with their favorite songs and distributed them to their friends, the RIAA would never have become involved. However, since the internet is still in its infancy in terms of legal and moral development, these individuals were tracked down with IP addresses (a computer’s address on the internet) provided by their Internet Service Providers (ISP), and had lawsuits brought against them simply because music was shared by the IP that was allegedly theirs. Importantly, one weakness in searching for file sharers through their IP address is that IP addresses are not static. Meaning that it is possible that a specific IP address did not belong to a specific person at the time the file sharing was taking place. The RIAA has admitted that the lawsuits were enacted to serve as examples and to instill the fear in millions of other users that they too could be prosecuted. 3
What the RIAA did not mention in their lawsuits is that over sixty million people have downloaded at least one song in their life, representing over 25% of the internet users in North America. 4 We are not saying this is ethical behavior, but the reality is that people will continue to share and download files everyday. Instead of pursuing individual users of these new programs, the RIAA must adapt to this new age of technology and make improvements to their own policies in order to join with millions of internet users and file sharers. Maybe shift focus from CD sales towards more emphasis on live performances. The music industry is slow to change, but it must accept the new role of music as an art in the digital age.
Steven R. Smersh, a private recording studio owner, stated that he believes music is art and that art is to be shared. Since art is to be shared, it would be unethical to deny or hinder its ability to be shared. 5 Artists are inspired by their surroundings and by their experiences. Those experiences can come from other people’s creations. Creative and cultural progress builds upon the things that already exist. As new works that have been inspired by old works are created, our culture becomes more rich and diverse and adds to the good of humankind, promoting more social justice.
This ability to take and build on others’ works and ideas is the foundation of entertainment in the US and has been throughout its history. If existing works are protected to the point where they cannot be used, in any form, it will gradually slow the creative processes of our culture to a halt. Imagine if copyrights were expanded to their fullest power and that every note on every instrument was owned by a certain individual until 70 years after their death. New music could not be made anymore. Existence of copyright laws do not promote freedom and creativity, they crush it.
Recently, entertainment lobbyist groups have been attempting to impede creative progress by arguing against new sharing technologies such as peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. An analogy given by Ted Olson, Former Solicitor General, on behalf of the RIAA and the MPAA, compared P2P to a hypothetical service that allowed anyone with a computer hooked to the Internet to gain free access to other people’s cars, houses and other forms of property. 6 Following his analogy, this person would then have the ability to use or do whatever they wished with that property. Ted Olson argued that such a service would be a tremendous threat to the property rights of Americans and would be shut down quickly. He claimed that the system he described was exactly the same as the P2P networks which enabled free sharing of digital information such as movies, songs, books, and pictures. The reasoning behind his analogy was that the government should protect the content of digital information in the same way that it protects the rights of property owners. The solution that he proposed was a ban of P2P networks.
This particular analogy conveniently ignores an important difference between digital and physical property. Digital information like songs, movies and other internet content are unlike physical property for one primary reason: digital information is not competitive. 7 They are not competitive because if one were to view a television show or movie that was downloaded, it does not prevent others from viewing it as well. This holds true no matter how many people might downloaded that particular show. On the other hand, if you were to take someone’s personal property, such as their computer, you would be depriving them of their property and its use. This latter action is well known to be stealing and therefore is labeled as illegal. In contrast, by downloading a show/movie one does not deprive anyone else from viewing it, thus you do not deny anyone of their property. This is a prime example of the distinction between traditional property rights and the rights to digital information and underscores the need for laws regarding new Internet file sharing technologies to reflect these differences.
Ted Olson also suggested that intellectual/digital property rights were so important that the creators of the constitution gave Congress the power to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive rights to their respective writings and discoveries”.8 This quote makes a compelling case for patents, and other such measures that temporally secure scientific discoveries. To use such an argument for copyrights, however, is to completely disregard the important differences between technology, innovation, and art at the time of the Constitution’s birth and in the present day. Current U.S. copyright laws are discouraging, not encouraging creative progress. The creators of the Constitution wanted copyrights to contribute to the “promotion of progress”, but in the digital information field, copyright laws are open to exploitation.
A simple example of copyright exploitation that suppresses the creation of new things is the existence of Corbis, founded by Bill Gates in 1989. Corbis “represents or owns the rights to more than 100 million images (and a) growing library of 30,000 short video clips.” 8 For example, they own the rights to the famous picture of Einstein sticking out his tongue, and the image of Marilyn Monroe with her white dress that is being blown upwards. Getty Images is another company that also owns the rights to a great number of images, and together with Corbis, they control over 50% of the image market. Joost Smiers, a professor of political science of the arts in the Netherlands and proponent of abolishing copyrights, states that:
“Documentary makers, who nowadays face almost insurmountable obstacles, as their work almost inevitably contains fragments of copyrighted pictorial or musical content,
the use of which requires both consent from the copyright owner and a fee to be paid. The latter is almost always beyond the documentary maker's means, and the former gives Bill Gates, or any other copyright owner, full rights to allow the use of "his" artistic content only in a way he deems appropriate.” 9
This example shows that it is very restrictive to the art world to have so many copyrights. Much creative art and technology never fully materializes because the creators of such pieces cannot afford to pay the licensing fees to acquire the rights to use a piece of copyrighted material.
The focus of most copyright debate is on music, but copyrights protect information in general, and information is the foundation of science and society. “Facts and ideas have existed in the public domain for over 200 years to be used over and over as building blocks of new scientific knowledge.” 10 Now the government is trying to create new laws to protect the collection of information that is contained in electronic databases. This could lead to difficulties in collaborations on very important scientific projects in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. As stated in the First Amendment to the Constitution of The United States, “Our profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open leave no room for a statutory monopoly over information and ideas.” The meaning of this sentence was to promote the wide use and sharing of ideas and scientific research and to build upon previous knowledge in order to make the best possible improvements for the good of all. Today, this type of free and open information-sharing would include work on some of the world’s most pressing issues, such as cancer, AIDS, and global warming.
Since the European Union Directive was enacted, there have been many problems in obtaining necessary research and educational files because they have chosen to take a different approach than the US Supreme Court. In 1996, the EU Directive extended the scope of their program to include the protection over facts in their databases, as well as prohibiting the extraction or reuse of a significant portion of any of the databases contained online. The EU Directive has also made an agreement to deny protection of materials not produced in EU-member states. However due to its frustrating policies, the leading independent scientific academy in the U.K., the Royal Society, has concluded that the E.U. Directive either be substantially amended or even repealed. Jeff Grove, Director of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), has stated, “Policymakers should not enact laws and regulations that unduly threaten the ability of anyone to engage in critical research or interfere in the otherwise legal exchange of ideas and information fundamental to the vitality of computing and information technology.” The Association for Computing Machinery is trying to safeguard the continued collection and use of fundamental data for scientific and academic purposes. “Since the open exchange of such data and information is fundamental to the advancement of knowledge, technology, and culture, the cost of overprotection far exceeds the cost of underprotection.” The government’s efforts to control information and ideas go against the ideals of its own foundation. If the government is successful in stopping or controlling all technologies that spread information, we can no longer call ourselves the “land of the free.”
In recent years a new technology has surfaced that makes information transfer more efficient. The advent of bit torrent (BT) technology, different from www.bittorrent.com, has enabled people to share any digital information, including movies, software, and even books. Due to the BT technology, easy access and fast downloads must be supported by a large user base. The more people there are sharing a specific file, the faster the download speeds will be for everybody. The BT technology is based on the idea that a file is broken into hundreds or thousands of pieces and when a user downloads a file via BT, the tracker searches the internet to find connected computers that have that particular file. From those many different computers different pieces of the file are downloaded and then reconstructed within the user’s computer. Once all the pieces are in place the file is accessible. This concept is the opposite of traditional download servers, where the more people there are downloading, the slower the download. ThePirateBay.org is a bit torrent tracker site, and is constantly under fire from the RIAA, MPAA, and other large companies such as Microsoft and Electronic Arts, who find that their copyrighted material is accessible for download through that site. Pirate Bay reports over one million unique visitors to their site everyday. 11 They offer links to trackers, which essentially facilitate the downloading of files using BT. Since none of their servers actually store copyrighted material, they have thus far avoided being shut down completely. Their servers are physically located in Sweden, and Swedish law has yet to deem trackers illegal. Bit torrents are an important new technology that provides legal distributed download services for large companies, like Blizzard Entertainment who use BT technology to issue their program patches and updates. However, many people think that bit torrents should be illegal because they can be used to violate copyrights.
People who download and share media are being labeled as criminals by corporations because their actions are deemed illegal under the current copyright laws. Media coverage of these issues suggests that since these activities are illegal, they are also unethical. Whether or not one’s actions are ethical should only be judged from one’s own standpoint and not by other people’s standards. In talking with many people, friends and strangers, who participate in the downloading of media, there is an overwhelming consensus that they are not being unethical. The most common reasons cited for their actions are:

  • I believe that music is art, and art is meant to be shared and enjoyed by many people.
  • There are millions of people around the world that do the exact same thing, so I do not feel immoral.
  • There is just one popular song that I want, and not the entire CD.
  • I am not stealing, but “simply borrowing from friends I don’t know all over the world”. 12
  • I choose to download music is because it is virtually impossible to get caught doing it.

If the copyright laws are abandoned, the actions of these people would no longer be illegal and that would match up with their own feelings that their actions are ethical. The internet would become an online library, with free sharing of information between all people.
The idea of increasing the number of sources for digital material, specifically music, is why many emerging music artists have no problem with their music being distributed through the Internet, free of charge, and actually welcome free sharing networks. These new artists encourage the free sharing of their music because more people are likely to listen to their music if it is free. Success in such industries is dependent on the ability of the artists to get their name out into the public, and if an artist’s works are quickly and easily spread through the public domain, they are more likely to gain recognition. More and more newcomers to the music industry are posting their music on their MySpace accounts or other websites for free download because it is essentially providing them free publicity, which increases the likelihood of sold-out shows when they tour. Traditional advertising that would reach a similar number of people would be extremely costly and consequently unaffordable to most emerging artists. Digital distribution allows artists to spread their message and their art in an amazingly direct and efficient way.
Advocates for the idea of more sources extend beyond just the music industry and included the software and computer industry. The idea of open source software has a large backing because open source software lacks the intellectual property restrictions that accompany most software. This means that the code for programs and software is available to users of the software and users are able to add and modify the code that runs the software as they wish. Open source is encouraged by those who use it because the more people who possess the software, the more sources there are for the software, and the greater number of people they have improving and building upon what is already created. Also, with the vast numbers of sources that are constantly building upon the software, if there is a security risk or if the software has bugs, there are numerous people working to fix it. The idea is that open source is better for society, as opposed to copyright and restricted software, because it allows for prices to be low and development into new markets to be fast. 13 Also, if there is an unlimited amount of people who can contribute, this brings about different ideas, thus increases the productivity and ease of use of these software. Mozilla Firefox, a new browser that has come to threaten Microsoft’s Internet Explorer’s market share, is an open source project. Firefox’s extensions function allows anyone to code something that enhances a person’s internet experience, from allowing for easier browsing to being more visually appealing. Without open source, as a user, I would depend entirely on the owner of the proprietary software to anticipate the need for change, but with open source users can make their own changes and improvements whenever the moment arises. If the code was restricted by copyrights or intellectual property, the development of software would be slowed drastically and make it difficult to develop completely new software without infringing upon some form of copyright restriction.
Today’s copyright laws are so strict that even a minor alteration to the original work is illegal. With globalization, more countries have access to media that are produced in other countries. An example of an internationally popular online media is anime, a modern type of animation originating from Japan. However, since it is usually released in Japanese, it is only accessible to people who understand Japanese. Some anime fans, wanting to spread the joy of these anime, have spent time translating anime by providing subtitles. None of these acts generate a profit for them. We do believe it is unethical for a person to profit off of someone else’s work. The fans are being entirely selfless and virtuous in making these subtitles and are doing nothing unethical. However, their actions, under current copyright laws, are illegal. Since the original creators did not make their own subtitles, adding them is considered an illegal alteration of the original work. Technically, this means that the people who provide fansubs would be considered criminals. If more people enjoy watching anime, there will be a demand from fans for U.S. television networks to broadcast anime. This will expand the reach of anime for those original artists, and allow access to new markets. If copyright laws were abandoned, what these fans are doing would not only be ethical, but would now be legal as well.
Copyright laws are simply a reflection that our society believes profit is a core value. Piracy and open sharing are the issues of greatest concern to copyright owners because they believe it is cutting into their profits. If copyright laws did not exist, pirates violating copyright laws would also not exist. The idea of copyrights has traditionally been looked at under a capitalistic framework of who makes money or experiences financial gains and who does not. When looked at under various ethical frameworks as opposed to society’s traditional framework, the idea of copyrights does not make sense and their abolishment coincides with such views. It is for social justice to have open and unhindered creation by the people and sharing of such creations. Under the consequentialism ethical framework people act in ways that produce the best consequences. If people could keep sharing information in a legal way, they could not be criminally charged for their actions, which is the best consequence. Currently the consequence of having copyrights in place is a “witch hunt” for those who infringe upon them. Also, based on deontology, piracy is only stealing because it is defined that way by copyright laws. Therefore, if copyright laws on internet digital information did not exist, the millions of people who download content from the internet would not have violated any rules thus making their actions completely ethical. The abolishment of copyrights would put an end to all the hassle of problems and issues that have come to surface recently, such as the RIAA lawsuits, and would put forth an action towards a society in which people would create for the sake of creation as well as for the betterment of society as a whole rather than for individual financial gains.

Works Cited
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10 Grove, Jeff. "Wanted: Public Policies That Foster Creation of Knowledge." Communications of the ACM. May 2004: 23-25. Academic Search Premier. 12 Feb. 2007.
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