A Scrivener’s Guild in a World of Printing Presses

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By now we’ve probably all heard about the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism kerfluffle. The issue has been covered by various sources so I am not going to recap it here. However, there was a rather interesting tangential discussion that started over at 2Blowhards concerning plagiarism and copyright.

The poster asdf in the 2Blowhards comments section seemed to have taken a serious issue with the prevalence of MP3 and MPEG copying among college age students. While it certainly seems to be something to get worked up about if millions of young people are “stealing” what we need to do is ask ourselves whether enjoying music and movies is really “stealing” in any moral sense of the word.

Four years ago, Jamie Kellner, then head of the Turner Broadcasting System, remarked in an interview in CableWorld magazine that viewers who used DVR’s to fast-forward past commercials were committing “theft,” then a moment later described it as “stealing the programming.” He did allow trips to the bathroom as a noncriminal exemption. (Source: NYTimes, Link)

The distinction between moral and legal theft is an important one to make. Copying music, art, literature, movies is run by what is collectively called “The Scene.” The scene is a honeycomb of people who love music, love art, and want others to experience it. The rules of the scene are simple moral guidelines — Do not violate the privacy of others, do not attempt to profit from someone else’s work, and so on. The rules of the scene are self-evident. They are the same rules that have existed long before and will continue to exist long after technology as we know it.

In a way, the scene is the prototype for distribution in the post-Scrivener world. It is the antithesis of what the recording and movie industries have become. Where recording companies seek to profit from others’ work by signing them into contracts to produce work only to have the rights to that work owned by the company, the scene frowns upon any attempt to profit from the work of others. The scene does not seek to own the work of any artist, yet the good it does to expose artists to potential fans is far more valuable than any promotional work done by the recording companies. Where the recording industries try to take control of your computer and track your every move, the scene respects your rights of privacy and self-determination. People in the scene who ignore these basic moral guidelines are shunned and ousted from the community. The people outside of the scene who ignore these basic moral guidelines are called recording companies.

Just think if Gutenberg had been more innovative in his profit model. Rather than setting off a flourishing of book publishing and education, he could have artificially prolonged the world’s dark age of illiteracy. Who can say how long such a halting of progress would have taken had the governments of the world enshrined in their laws special rights to publishers, allowing them to own the rights for books in perpetua, to dismantle public libraries, to criminalize the creation of more printing presses? Perhaps Soviet Russia would have done better to buy the rights to dissenters’ works, and simply criminalize the reprinting of these books. Had they done so, they would have at least had the useful idiots like asdf to back them up on their immoral law.

Here is a story I read recently on a “bust” the FBI did of some people in the scene. It’s truly sickening to see people getting decade long sentences for what amounts to violating an agreement that they were never parties to. Worse, the agreement is predicated upon fanciful notions that downloaded copies correspond to sales, and that acts which result in lost sales are morally equivalent to theft. Both of these are highly dubious assertions, yet our legal system would send these men to prison on such shaky ground. I find it absolutely criminal that our legal system is so skewed that it would accept this unreasonable punishment when murderers and rapists regularly serve similar sentences.

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