In Defense of Free Knowledge

I talk a lot about free access to information. When most of the people I talk to hear this, the first things they think about is music, the RIAA, Napster, and Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file-sharing. Music and P2P is usually where the conversation drifts.

I tell people that one reason P2P is scary to the music industry is because it completely supplants the industry’s role as distributors. [1] I tell them that P2P, and technologies like it, will become really powerful when P2P distribution technology is brought together with communities for the production of content totally separate from the industries created and sustained by the old distribution paradigm. [2]

At this point at the conversation (if my fellow conversationalist has not fled the room), folks often notice the implication of what I’m suggesting: by replacing highly centralized systems of distribution and production for music, I’m advocating the the destruction of the music industry. At the very least, I’m talking about the creation of a parallel competing industry built on radically different (and incompatible) technological, ethical, and economic ideologies.

Quite reasonably, people want to know what this replacement or parallel system will be before we rush off eliminating the companies currently paying the people making the music most of us have in our CD players. This is where I start sounding a lot less prepared. Ultimately, I don’t have the "this is the system we’re looking for" answer that people want. Unlike most people I talk to, I’m alright with not having that answer.

I think the reasons I’m comfortable without an answer are as follows:

I believe that access to information is ethical issue.

This is where I invoke Eben Moglen because he says it a lot better than I can. There’s a great talk Eben Moglen gave that’s based around his dotCommunist Manifesto. Moglen says:

The great moral question of the twenty-first century is: If all knowledge, all culture, all art, all useful information, can be costlessly given to everyone at the same price that it is given to anyone — if everyone can have everything, everywhere, all the time, why is it ever moral to exclude anyone from anything?

If you could make lamb chops in endless numbers by the mere pressing of a button, there would be no moral argument for hunger ever, anywhere.

I see no system of moral philosophy generated by the economy of the past that could evolve a principle to explain the moral legitimacy of denial in the presence of infinite profusion.

Free access to information is essential because the alternative is unethical and unacceptable. Replacing a system built on the unjust restriction of knowledge may not — and probably will not — be easy or smooth and that doesn’t matter. Migrating away from other unjust systems of the past — slavery, child labor, exploitation of all sorts [3] — is not always, or often, easy and smooth. Sacrifices are made.

Where sustainable solutions for the production of knowledge are not obvious, we — as producers and consumers — have a moral responsibility to be creative and to create them.

These types of changes take time.

With all its warts, copyright was a system that filled an important role at a particular time and in the context of particular technological and social systems around the production and and consumption of a particular intellectual good: eighteenth century printed books.

After the invention of the printing press, the pool of people who were reading expanded from the educated ultra-elite to the middle and working classes; public education became the norm. Patronage was simply not an optimum compensation system for the production of the types of work that were demanded. Copyright stepped in because it worked to support publishers and authors in the production of content that was desired but that was not being produced in adequate quantities under patronage, etc.

But it didn’t happen until more than 200 years after Gutenberg. Unfortunately, technological innovations in the production and distribution of intellectual goods do not spring from inventors loins complete with a a fully refined system for the compensation of authors whose work is produced or distributed using the new innovation. It would be a lot simpler if that were the case but it’s not.

Printing became mass printing and things got worse before they got better. We’re already seeing this with music. Things will get better and artists will continue to be paid. The less successful the RIAA is holding back and warping the technology, the sooner we’ll have tested and viable alternatives. [4]

There was music before copyright.

This may sound silly but part of the reason I don’t worry is that I can’t imagine a world where there are simply no musicians. There was music before copyright. There will be music after copyright.

The recording industry will tell you that without them and without copyright there will be no music. I’ve seen an "educational video" where the Software Business Alliance used a dark screen to emulate "the end of the computer age" brought on by software piracy.

If proprietary software became illegal tomorrow, would there be software? Yes. People need software. If proprietary music became illegal tomorrow, would there be music? Of course.

It might be different music. It might not be ultra-produced, ultra-expensive Britney Spears but if that’s really what you want, I’m sure someone in an RIAA member company will find a take your money in exchange for it.

The first reason is the reason we must forge ahead. Of course, there’s little point in advocating an ethical impossibility so the second and third reasons show us that there is enough historical and societal evidence that a world of ethical information sharing is possible. Together, they describe a realistic possibility of a more ethical system for the production of information and knowledge and this is a compelling reason for me.


[1] At this point, that’s all P2P is really supplanting in a meaningful way: most content on P2P network is produced by an industry made possible through tight centralized control over the mechanisms of production and over the product itself.
[2] For those of us in the Free and Open Source software world, we already have some hint of what this can look like — although I am sure things will be somewhat different when it happens with music.
[3] I don’t intend to imply that child labor or slavery and copyright are moral equivalents. I’m simply stating that their abolition was a moral imperative in the face of strong and highly
ingrained economic considerations.
[4] Of course, the RIAA doesn’t want viable alternatives to the system that they are firmly in control of, but that’s a story for another day.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Free Knowledge”

  1. This is good stuff. A couple of questions, though. You claim that “With all its warts, copyright was a system that filled an important role at a particular time and in the context of particular technological and social systems around the production and and consumption of a particular intellectual good: eighteenth century printed books.” This is a pretty common way that people arguing for a rollback on intellectual property restrictions talk about the history of IP. But I actually think it’s more rosy than IP deserves.

    Here’s why. You argue: “Patronage was simply not an optimum compensation system for the production of the types of work that were demanded. Copyright stepped in because it worked to support publishers and authors in the production of content that was desired but that was not being produced in adequate quantities under patronage, etc.” But in fact copyrights (and patents, too, for what it’s worth) originated protected markets granted by royal mandates–a given printing house would be given a “copyright” in a particular region, which allowed that house and only that house to print books and newspapers in the area. There was no presumption that copyright originated from the perogatives of the author of a work (which could be copied freely by anyone the King authorized to print).

    Second: I think you make a really important point, which ought to be underlined, when you say ‘Quite reasonably, people want to know what this replacement or parallel system will be before we rush off eliminating the companies currently paying the people making the music most of us have in our CD players. This is where I start sounding a lot less prepared. Ultimately, I don’t have the “this is the system we’re looking for” answer that people want. Unlike most people I talk to, I’m alright with not having that answer.’

    I think there is a certain amount that we can say about how the world will look with certain changes (e.g., without copyright restrictions). But one thing that a lot of people don’t seem to get about freedom is that you don’t have to have everything worked out ahead of time. Five Year Plans are for Stalinists and corporations; if your goal is just to let people decide what it is best for them to do, then you can usually trust them to come up with something creative, worthwhile, and powerful. Not always, of course–people are anything but perfect–but you can get it a lot more often from many people working freely than from one person’s grand scheme for how to organize society.

    So while I’m interested in talking about ways the world might turn out without copyright protectionism, or suburban zoning laws, or corporate union-busting, or any number of other things, I’m quite happy to leave a lot of spaces open. The ethical issues are clear enough: people should be free wherever they can be. And the practical issues of what people will do with their freedom are interesting and difficult, but I don’t need to know the answers to all of them. Musicians can figure out how to make music; authors can figure out how to write books; and I’m sure that they’ll come up with much better answers than I will.

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