Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Freedom of Ideas: Copyright's Negligible Impact on the History of Writing

I am rereading John Perry Barlow's seminal The Economy of Ideas, and I cannot help but be struck by the almost backward orientation of his take on history as it applies to intellectual monopolies. While Barlow has always been considered an advocate of Freedom on the Internet -- and I certainly so consider him -- The Economy of Ideas is written with the implicit assumption -- that Jefferson did not make in the quote Barlow supplies -- that copyrighted works are a form of property and that the Internet is changing something that has always been true. Neither of these assumptions are correct, and as I hope to show, neither of these assumptions could occur outside of the context of Western European culture.

The passage that starts this off is:

Notions of property, value, ownership, and the nature of wealth itself are changing more fundamentally than at any time since the Sumerians first poked cuneiform into wet clay and called it stored grain. Only a very few people are aware of the enormity of this shift and fewer of them are lawyers or public officials. [Empasis mine.]

It is curious that Barlow would bring up the subject of the Sumerians without realising the obvious contradiction to his industrial revolution fashioned mentality. Before I continue, I think it only fair to point out that we are all victims of the tyrannical reign of the newspaper and its ability to replace knowledge with absolute rubbish, to exchange noise for truth. News agencies have a vested interest in making us believe in the "intellectual property" myth, and few people in any modern, urban area can claim to have avoided entirely the use of the term "intellectual property", one of the greatest fictions of our epoch. So, I do not fault Barlow for this point of view as it was more or less forced upon him by our culture.

Curiouser and Curiouser

The reason Barlow's statement is curious is due to the obvious fact that the Sumerians, themselves, had no copyright and no notion remotely resembling it. A quick search on the Internet reveals that Sumer's cuneiform writing system was developed sometime around 3500BC. Further, "proto-writing" goes back in Mesopotamia, in the Indus river basin, and in China to about 6000BC. Writing has been around quite some time.

On the other hand, we have copyright. The first official copyright law, the Statute of Anne, was passed into law in 1710. Copyright, an infant in the history of writing, will reach its 300th birthday next year. Cuneiform, however, is more than 5,000 years old. Copyright, therefore, is not the norm, but the exception in the history of writing. In fact, it hardly qualifies as a blip.

During all this time, ideas were not considered a form of "property". Word were words -- written or unwritten. In ancient times, people were more likely to believe that mountains could be moved than that ideas could be "owned". English culture -- the one that invented the concept of copyright -- would not grace the world with its presence for another 4,000 years or so. Thus, ideas were not property, and the culture that thought they could be had not formed yet.

Ancient Cultures: Slightly More Depth

In places such as China, which invented paper, and printing, and combined to two to create paper money, this idea never occurred to anyone. This is even though China was printing books as early as 100AD. Printing was also cheaper in China. The printing technology used made it possible for any jerk with a piece of wood and a chisel to print thousands of copies of any text within a few hours. By the Song Dynasty (960–1279AD), 20th or at least 19th Century levels of printing in the Western cultural sphere were being carried out in China. This information exchange helped to create an economy so large that it was not surpassed by Western Europe until 1750 or so. Still, copyright was never dreamed up in Chinese culture.

The Sumerians, I was once told by a curator at a museum I worked for, were very prolific writers. They left behind, literally, tons of clay tablets containing writing of all sorts. Personal notes, shopping lists, rules for servants, and just about any other conceivable thing -- well, conceivable to them, anyway -- was written down. They wrote for thousands of years and passed their system down to subsequent civilisations. They did all this writing without any copyright to support it.

What Does This Mean to the Modern Reader?

All of these works of the ancient world would have been subject to current copyright. They were all -- every single one -- "fixed and in tangible form". They were all "new works".

But, they were also all speech. No one, before the English, would have thought to draw fences around words for profit. None of these people in the ancient world would have thought to call their words "property". Not even the monarchs. There might have been suppression of things one could say, but this was not for money or gold.

Therefore, the Internet is causing a change in the way we view things, but it is not the change that Barlow suggests. The idea of copyright is a very recent one, the idea of "intellectual property" more recent still. This hopefully short lived experiment with bottling information has failed miserably, and we are all -- everyone on planet Earth -- suffering from it. The Internet is not ushering in a new era so much as demonstrating clearly what has been taken from us over the last three centuries. Ideas are like air. We all depend upon them, and we all have a natural, inalienable right to access and process them. It is time to cut off our charity to the greedy, ungrateful publishers before they use our generously given funds to create more hardship for us.

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