December 7, 2003

Copy music, destroy civilization

By: David Freddoso

I “google” myself occasionally. That is, I enter my own name into the popular Internet search engine, perhaps on a monthly basis, to see if I’m becoming a famous writer (not yet, I’m afraid).

Until recently I did it just because I am vain, but this spring I discovered a new reason for doing it, and frequently. That’s when I found my name on the website of a print magazine I had never heard of, along with the description of an article I had written for Human Events in January about the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

This magazine, as it turned out, had stolen my article, printed it in their pages, and then mailed it out to their subscribers as if I or Human Events had given permission, which was not the case. Even worse, a Nexis search of this publication’s name revealed allegations against it of anti-Semitism. I did not bother to investigate the claims–even a perceived association like that can be death for a young conservative writer.

At my request the editor removed my name from the website and agreed not to steal my articles again. I don’t think my career will suffer from that episode, but it did make me think about the importance of respect for intellectual property.

The discussion of intellectual property nowadays is dominated by the theft of music on the Internet. I believe strongly that the practice is immoral–that the proliferation of easy electronic means for it is no excuse, and that people who do it should go to prison just like any teenaged shoplifter at Sam Goody.

Try selling that argument to a college student–even the most upstanding, pious kid you find praying at the Notre Dame’s Grotto–and you will hear a litany of excuses: “The money doesn’t go to the artists anyway.” “Big record companies don’t need such a large profit.” Such arguments could justify almost any crime, and self-rationalization is always deaf to reason.

But there are more legitimate concerns about IP law. In its efforts to undermine the means of electronic music theft, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has initiated lawsuits to ban search engines that can also be used for perfectly legitimate file-sharing purposes. Courts have decided that some are legal, while others–Napster, for example–do not pass muster, simply based on perceptions of whether they are meant to foster piracy.

So now the government is going to decide what properties a search engine can have, and what it can and cannot look for? Yikes! It’s enough to make a good conservative want to toss the whole area of law out the window.

Property Rights

But this would be a huge mistake. Intellectual property theft, like all theft, represents an attack not just on the victim but on civilization itself.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that man’s unalienable rights, which come from God, include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He was taking his cue from the philosopher John Locke, who wrote instead of “life, liberty, and property”–similar ideas, since “the pursuit of happiness” must surely include the right to enjoy the fruit of one’s own labors.

Neither the Founders nor Locke chose these principles at random. There can be no societal development or human achievement if everyone lives with a constant and legitimate fear of being brutally murdered, or of having the work of their hands seized by force.

When men first abandoned the nomadic life for agriculture, they did so only because they felt some confidence they would be able to harvest and eat them. Without this confidence, tilling and sowing would be a waste of time and effort–someone would just steal the crops anyway. They would have been forced back into hunting and gathering, living in fear of starvation–a condition in which society remains stunted and primitive.

Conversely, if property rights are respected, society can move into agriculture and well beyond. If property is respected sufficiently, man can even develop a society like ours, in which we are so unworried by basic needs that we can widely enjoy such superfluities as cable television, gourmet pet food, and entire websites (not making this up) devoted to photographs of discarded mattresses and “Bad Sideburns.” More importantly, we enjoy amazing convenience, remarkable works of art and architecture, and an economy that sustains millions, with even the poorest among us literate and well fed.

The lesson is that society flourishes to the extent that property rights are respected, and stagnates or declines to the extent that they are not. Hence the proper role of government as sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution–as the defender of those unalienable rights, including property rights. This view steers the middle course between the vicious extremes of anarchy–which creates such fear that societal development is hindered or stopped altogether–and totalitarianism, which actively undermines property rights with the same effect.

The Work of Our Hands and Minds

Intellectual property is no different from property in its other forms, and there are no excuses for its theft. Perhaps record companies do exploit artists, but they only exist because musicians know they usually cannot make a living without them. The artists need someone with the money and infrastructure to distribute and promote their work. If students’ theft puts these evil, greedy companies out of business, musicians will have to find other jobs to sustain themselves (in some cases, maybe it’s not a bad thing).

The loss of intellectual property rights won’t cast us immediately into the Stone Age, but it is unjust, and it will certainly diminish the cultural richness and creativity of our society. If every newspaper in the country could publish my articles for free without permission (not to say they would want to), Human Events would have no reason to pay me. If such disrespect for writers’ creations were sufficiently widespread, we would lose our independent press, vital to our nation’s health, along with our creative authors and artists. No one will pay for what is available for free, and so writers all over the country might be forced into janitorial or construction work–or even worse, public relations.

I admit to some amusement at the idea of Britney Spears as a street-sweeper–if only because she would probably have to wear the clothes of that profession. But widespread intellectual property theft will also kill off the greatest of man’s great creations.

There was once a writer who felt threatened enough by the theft of his intellectual property that he dedicated a chapter in a novel to highlighting and lampooning the practice. The book was Nicholas Nickelby; the writer, Charles Dickens. Fortunately, the MP3 pirates of his time failed to drive him into another line of work.

Think twice before indulging in free music or other forms of stolen intellectual property. “Free stuff” always comes at a terrible price.

David Freddoso, Assistant Editor for Human Events, writes for Brainwash.

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