June 10, 2012

Intellectual Property: Part One

Perhaps you read, as I did, the article in the May 22 Press-Republican, “ Court won’t reduce student’s $675,000 music download fine” by AP Legal Affairs Writer Denise Lavoie. 

Perhaps you wondered why Joel Tenenbaum, the student referred to in the headline, was fined such a large amount for illegally downloading 30 songs from a file system shared by thousands of others. Why pick on poor Joel, and why so large a fine? 

The detailed history of the lengthy and complicated trial proceedings between the plaintiff recording companies

(Sony, Warner Bros., etc.) and Tenenbaum can be found online. It’s an extensive and interesting story that begins with the concept of ownership.

The concept of ownership is ancient and complicated, but we can begin by noting that it was discussed by both Plato and Aristotle about 2300 years ago, who had opposing views on the matter. Plato believed that private property served to divide, not unite, humanity, while Aristotle thought private ownership of any property was only the fair outcome and reward of an individual’s labor — and not much has changed since then. Whether you side with Plato or his student, Aristotle, regarding intellectual property like music, books and movies, the current copyright laws side with Aristotle.

The Constitution, under Article 1, Section 8, grants “The Congress the right to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” 

This clause is usually interpreted as attempting to synthesize and reconcile the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle by recognizing the individual rights of the inventor or creator while balancing them with the overall benefits for society. It seems to be a recognition that we all need each other, not just to advance civilization but for survival itself: “United we Stand, Divided we Fall.”

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