Press-Republican

June 10, 2012

Intellectual Property: Part One

Stewart Denenberg
Press-Republican

---- — 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.”

Even before the United States existed, there existed copyright laws in Britain, due perhaps to the philosophy of John Locke, who makes a strong case for a natural right to private property. He claimed that “people have a right to those things which they have removed from Nature through their own labor.” 

This means that whether I have cleared the land myself or sold my grain to attain money to buy the land, I have a natural right to own the land — and you do not. In his book, “Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership,” author Lewis Hyde points out, “The very first copyright law (Britain’s 1710 Statute of Anne) gave ‘the Authors and Proprietors of books exclusive rights to their works for as long as 28 years, provided that they paid a six-penny fee and listed their works in the Register-Book of the Company of Stationers.’”

The limited term of ownership under the copyright laws of the United States has increased since the original Copyright Act of 1790, where the term was specified as 14 years with the possibility of extending for another 14 years if the copyright holder was still living. However, the term of ownership has inched up since then, culminating in the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. This act extended the terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is earlier. This act has been dubbed the Sonny Bono Act or as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. And, yes, this was the Bono of the“Sonny and Cher” song team of the ’60s and ’70s, and yes, the Walt Disney Corporation was a prime factor in the passage of the act, as their copyright of the Mickey Mouse logo was due to expire shortly and not only are lobbies legal in the United States, corporations have recently been promoted to people. Perhaps Plato was right after all.

Next time: Why indeed pick on poor Joel — the pros and cons of file “sharing.”

Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years at the institution. Prior to that he has worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Please send comments and suggestions to his blog at http://tec-soc.blogspot.com where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at denenbsa@gmail.com.