Michael J. Radwin

Tales of a software engineer who keeps kosher and hates the web.

Information wants to be free?

This graphic is Copyright (c) 2002 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.  Should I be re-publishing it here? I spend a lot of time thinking about IP. No, I’m not talking about Internet Protocol; I’m talking about the other IP. Intellectual Property. Some day before I get too old, I’m going to put my career as a software guy on hold and go to law school to study this stuff more seriously.

I was talking about blogs with my friend Gabriel last night on the phone, and the subject of images came up. I mentioned to him that I was trying to put graphics next to each blog entry that I write because it’s entertaining and it makes the page easier to read (too much text and people won’t bother to read my blog). I often go to http://images.google.com/ and search for something then grab whatever graphic happens to look the best. So I mentioned to Gabriel that I’m worried about the copyright implications of re-publishing someone else’s clipart/photo/graphic without their permission.

“Whatever, dude. Information wants to be free,” he said. “Plus, it’s fair use.”

Actually, the reason I’m worried about it is that I’m pretty sure it’s not covered under the fair use doctrine. Writing a blog is pretty clearly a form of publication, and fair use certainly doesn’t cover republication. It might allow you to rent a movie from Blockbuster and show it to a dozen of your friends at home, but it doesn’t allow you to display that movie in a public place (like a restaurant or bar) without paying royalties to the movie studio. Since blogs are a public medium (it’s not just my family friends that read this, but also a bunch of people I don’t even know), to be 100% legal I probably should avoid using random images I grab off the web (or I should specifically seek out unencumbered graphics, such as the dreidel I found when searching for “free chanukah clipart”).

Don’t get me wrong. I do think that copyright law can be taken too far. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act perhaps gets the most attention of the copyright-laws-gone-awry. And I haven’t even begun to understand the implications of the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act.

free-the-mouse.gif The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act is also really misguided; Mickey Mouse belongs in the public domain as much as American Gothic and Uncle Sam do.

But I have a strong respect for copyright law because artists deserve a right to make a living. If you’re selling a product (like bars of soap or ink jet printers) then you’ve got a steady revenue stream because your product eventually wears out and people need to buy more. When you’re providing a service (like helping people with their income taxes) you get paid for that, too.

But Intellectual Property is different. It’s not a tangible product that you can buy, but it’s something that we still find valuable (otherwise we wouldn’t pay 9 bucks to see a first-run movie). In the digital age, we need to be especially diligent with IP. Digital copies of creative works are essentially free to copy (thanks to 19 cent blank CD-Rs and fast Internet connections). When you write a book, compose some music, direct a movie, or even write code, your work can be copied an infinite number of times without you getting paid for it. We all have families to support. Copyright law was originally intended to ensure that creative individuals would get compensated for their work.

Gabriel pointed out that the Open Source Software movement is trying to turn copyright upside-down. But if you look at the key people in the OSS movement, they benefit tremendously from copyright law. Many of them write code for free, but they make their living by authoring books and magazine articles, and getting paid to speak at conferences. Some of them run consulting and support companies. The very lucky ones are employed by a generous and open-minded corporation that pays their engineering salary but donates their time to the Open Source world.

I agree that information wants to be free. We all want a free lunch.