Fair but Wrong

“Artists ought to be paid for their work. It’s only fair.”

So say the record labels, movie studios, book publishers and other owners of content created by artists. And it’s a seductive plea. But if we fall for it, we may stifle our culture of creativity to the point where it becomes bureaucratic, hostile to innovation, and as interesting as 1970’s East Berlin television.

Of course artists should be paid for their work, but behind the “It’s only fair” plea is an assumption the fairness consists of an equal exchange of value. If you pay for leather shoes and the store gives you leather shoes, then the exchange was fair. If, you pay leather prices for plastic shoes, the exchange was unfair. So the advocates of fairness propose making just a few changes to the Internet – which actually amount to redoing its basic architecture – that will ensure that artists are paid for the value their work creates.

But, it’s important to remember that that’s not how it works in the real world. If you buy a book, you can read it twice without paying the author again. You can lend it to a friend. She can sell it to a used book store. You and others just keep getting more and more value from the book, but the original book store, the author and the publisher don't see a penny of that. All of those uses fail the “It’s not fair!” argument.

Our culture would be far worse off if it obeyed this tit-for-tat view of fairness. But that’s not been demanded until how because it hasn’t been practical: Publishers can’t tell if you re-read a book and cable companies can’t tell if you invite a friend to watch with you. In the digital world, though, publishers could know every time you turn an online page or listen to an MP3 track. And that’s exactly what the publishers want. They are pushing for “Digital Rights Management” (DRM) that would require any equipment that can display copyrighted material to enforce the strict equation of value dictated by their definition of fairness. All the major players are involved: Companies that make software and operating systems, the entertainment industry, Congress, the FCC, even the United Nations. The only ones conspicuously absent from the rush to DRM are we users. So far, there’s not a lot of evidence that we want DRM done to us.

And it’s not because we’re a bunch of pirates who don’t care about supporting artists and don’t care about fairness. It’s at least in part because we understand that the publisher’s view of fairness demeans creative works. Such works are special. They’re not shoes. They’re the books we read, the songs we sing, the ideas that reshape our thinking. They’re constitutive of our culture. Whether it’s the Macarena, the idea of intelligent design, or a new type of knock-knock joke, we live in these sounds, images and ideas. We don’t consume them as if they were bran flakes. We make them our own and re-express them in our own ways. That is their value.

If we’re only free to passively consume creative works, all we’ll have are endlessly repeating, copyright-protected jingles bouncing around in our heads. Culture can only grow if we can make creative works part of our lives. But we won’t be able to do that if we have to worry about paying for them each time we want to re-read or re-live them. The type of tit-for-tat fairness called for by the proponents of DRM kills culture.

We’ve never fallen for that view of fairness when it comes to ideas and culture. It works fine for shoe stores, but our Founding Fathers put into the Constitution itself the requirement that authors lose control of their works after a set period, initially fourteen years. If the current copyright insanity – protecting works for seventy years after the author’s funeral – is what it takes to be “fair” to authors and publishers, then we’re better off with an unfair society. Or, better, we need to come up with a new definition of what constitutes fair compensation for creators.

It’d be a tragedy if the Internet, the historically greatest medium for the sharing of the creative work of humans, becomes the mechanism by which we institute history’s greatest restrictions on the spread of creative work. Our descendants would be right to curse us for purposefully choosing a new Dark Ages, even if we did it in the name of fairness.

A submission by David Weinberger to the APIG DRM Public Inquiry