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An Open Reply to BillG

[In response to a question asking about "people clamoring to reform and restrict intellectual-property rights"]

Bill Gates:
I'd say that of the world's economies, there's more that believe in intellectual property today than ever. There are fewer communists in the world today than there were. There are some new modern-day sort of communists who want to get rid of the incentive for musicians and moviemakers and software makers under various guises. They don't think that those incentives should exist.
Um, no.

I would probably be counted among those "communists".  I write open-source software.  I support the Creative Commons.  I complain about software patents.  But I use those incentives too--I write software and design websites (and even non-computer-related writing) that's protected by copyright.  Even my open source or Creative Commons protected work is protected by copyright.

The fundamental idea of copyright is sound: if I create something, I should be able to control who gets to make distributable copies.  What isn't sound is what companies like yours do with copyright: they lobby to extend it far past the realm of usefulness; they use highly restrictive licenses to control how users use their copyrighted materials; they stop users from performing perfectly legitimate activities, like burning a song to CD or extracting a clip from a movie.  Another thing that isn't sound is how companies enforce their copyrights: they add onerous systems that catch the good guys more often than the bad (like your company's Product Activation); they put weak encryption on the content and then get laws passed saying it's illegal to crack it even for legitimate uses; they try to take legal shortcuts that, if established, could badly damage privacy online; they sue makers of content-neutral tools rather than the people who are actually pirating content.

You must understand at least some of that.  Surely you see statistics from your Product Activation people on how many users have to call in and convince them that they aren't pirating Windows.  If you've been eating your own dog food with Windows Media DRM, surely you've hit a case where you couldn't do something with your music you wanted to.  And I know that the Business Software Alliance opposed a recent copyright law designed to take down P2P networks.

Patents are another fairly sound idea: if I invent something, I should be able to charge people for the invention for a little while.  Once again, what isn't sound is the application: twenty-year patents in an industry where all but the most fundamental ideas are obsolete within ten; companies able to patent Knuth; companies able to put "on the Internet" on the end of anything invented before and patent it; companies able to get patents for inventions where prior art is practically screaming in the patent examiner's face.  Another big problem is that lawyers are so integral to the entire patent system; it's very difficult for a layman to interpret a patent, and since they're the IP equivalent of landmines--you don't have to know one is there for it to kill you--people end up either turning back to avoid the minefield or closing their eyes, praying, and running across it.

That's right, some people and companies avoid writing software because they're afraid of patents.  What a wonderful incentive to innovate, Mr. Gates!

Copyrights can benefit everybody, but only when they're limited--to reasonable lengths of time, to reasonable terms of use, to reasonable legal procedures, and to protecting the object being copyrighted rather than attacking objects that could be used to pirate it.  Patents are much more dangerous, but they too can be made useful, if they're limited to reasonable inventions and very short durations in an industry like ours.

Please don't paint us as communists, Mr. Gates.  Believe me when I tell you that more of us agree with Ayn Rand than Karl Marx.  Look at Eric S. Raymond--he's about as libertarian as they come.  Calling us communists is about as accurate as calling you an idiot--I know you're an intelligent man, even if you are apparently bent on domination of the world's intellectual property markets.  Name-calling is unproductive, especailly when it's not true.

--Brent Royal-Gordon


( Read 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jan. 8th, 2005 11:22 pm (UTC)
/me applauds.
( Read 1 comment — Leave a comment )