In 2007, Mark Helprin wrote an editorial entitled “A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?” Larry Lessig, the Aragorn of anti-copyright, replied,
“So I’ve gotten (literally) scores of emails about this piece by Mark Helprin promoting perpetual copyright terms. ‘Write a reply!’ is the demand. But why don’t you write the reply instead. Here’s a page on wiki.lessig.org. Please write an argument that puts this argument in its proper place.”
327 edits and four years later, you can still find the ongoing rebuttal that Lessig never had to write. Perhaps most importantly though, all these authors gave their work away, copyright-free, for free. Since other people have already rebutted Helprin, I’d like to ask a different, trickier question:
Why do people do things for free?
I hope Mr. Helprin has an answer. I hope he wrote his books not just for a nickel every time they sold a copy, but so his ideas could reach across the page and touch everyone that read his thoughts. Before Mt. Everest killed him, George Malloy was asked why he climbed mountains, and he replied, “Because it’s there.” It is natural in all of us to work, and strive, and create, even if it costs us dearly. Copyright law does not strongly incentivize creation. It encourages corporate sponsorship of creation, it creates paths of monetization and control for art, but for the most part, I believe people don’t do things for a buck.
Francis Ford Coppola on film: “Who says art has to cost money? Who says artists have to make money?… Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money.” To be clear, I think Coppola is wrong. I think the best artists will make money, will warrant patronage, and profit from their skill. But for the first time in history, it might not require resources to be an artist: the skill and publishing costs have fallen so far that we all can contribute. Coppola says that in olden times, artists didn’t make money. Back then, only the fabulously wealthy could engage in art and culture: they were the most opulent extravagances. Today, we have Google Art. Anyone can see the great classic paintings, in exquisite detail, with a $300 computer and an internet connection. But we also have icanhazcheezburger. Anyone can make the next great meme with a $300 computer and an internet connection. Art today is consumed more widely and made by more people than it ever has been before. Justin Bieber’s hit single “Baby” has grossed 455,000,000 views in under a year on Youtube. (Did that freely available art hurt Bieber’s success? Probably not, claims Google.) As audiences and producers change, it’s important for our societal standards to push past thinking about copyright as a way to restrict or monetize things, and instead think of most creative contributions as a donation into the community: once unshackled onto the internet, don’t attempt to re-cage it, and certainly don’t try to force people to pay for it.
Social psychology has grappled with questions about why we help people. From Latane & Darley, we get the Bystander effect. Yet the internet is teeming with bystanders, and people still help out, enough to generate wonderful resources like Stack Overflow, Yahoo Answers, and Youtube comments (ok, so sometimes they aren’t wonderful resources). The most relevant ideas in internet helpfulness, and the things that might push us past copyright in creative endeavors, are the following:
• Imitating other helpful people
• The Internet alleviates a lot of time pressures
• Similarity, or lack thereof
Imitating other helpful people
It’s well known that some communities foster excellent helpful communities, while others are rife with suspicion, bigotry, and hatred. The internet does occasionally produce the Gabriel theory of greater internet fuckwad theory. Yet there also exist places on the internet where trolling is hated and injustices corrected.
By building internet communities where stand on each other’s creative works, via remixing, memes, and constructive criticism, it’s possible to build a post-copyright world. We naturally imitate other helpful people: join a community of helpful artists, and you’ll be inclined to give away your creative works too.
No time pressures
When hurrying by a man lying face-down in a pool of blood on the sidewalk, you might be too distracted with your own hurried life to even notice him, much less help him. This is an embarrassing yet real tendency of humans. Yet the internet is usually engaged in leisure time, when you have no pressures. Therefore, people on the internet consistently undertake projects that take hundreds of hours to produce something that they never profit a dime on.
Finally, the internet is faceless. We are brought together by shared interests, or similar aspirations. Does the internet reveal profound bigotry and prejudice? Yes. But is it possible to externally check if the person you’re IMing is white? Or judge the age of the previous commenter? By removing these prejudices, we break away from our implicit associations and prejudices, creating a freer world where we are more likely to help those of us that are externally different.
The great hippie commune never happened for a lot of reasons. Most importantly, humans need production to exist. Production of food, of machinery, of services. But we have the opportunity for a different kind of commune, one of shared knowledge and creativity. Production of an idea is a long and arduous process. But its reproduction is a few kilobytes across a wire, around the world a billion times over again. If Bieber can do it, if Wikipedia can do it, we can build a communal expectation of free. Once we’re all helping each other, we’ll have made an intellectual community we ought to all be proud of.