Thursday, February 23, 2012

What does it mean to own information?

I am quoting below my post in a go thread lamenting the widespread "piracy" of go writers' books (most of which are not actually available in many bookstores). I already discussed the non-scarcity argument before (after the videos), but here I also address the arguments "if you pirate my work, my sales will drop" and "the law says this is copyrighted".

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[I wrote the following statement in a previous post: "It is funny that book writers make money from writing about other people's so-called 'intellectual property' (the games they played, the move combinations they invented, etc.) and do not reimburse the players or their families, yet they complain about the 'piracy'. Hypocritical much?"

Someone answered that a particular game played between two people is not recognized by law as intellectual property, while a book discussing that game is. Here is my retort.]

What difference does it make whether some law protects something or not? You are merely saying that a large organization with a lot of guns recognized something arbitrarily as "property" and decided to give monopoly to it. Imagine that my friend is a Russian mafia mobster who "recognizes" all possible piano concerts by all pianists (and sales of tickets to them) in South Brooklyn as his property. He has a lot of guns too (admittedly, not as many as the Federal government). Therefore what?

Whether or not something is legal and whether or not something is moral have nothing to do with each other. There are plenty of cases from history when things were legal but not moral or illegal but moral. For example, American democratically elected state governments at some point recognized slaves as property, protected slavery by law, and recognized assisting slaves to escape as illegal. The first "patents" were actually permissions to rob foreign merchant ships that were granted by European governments at times of war.

Remember, every time you apply a law, you're applying force and violence. You're telling people what to do with their property (such as "you may not use your hard drive and the data on it in this particular way"). When you apply violence/force to someone, you better have a good reason for doing so. The only reason that I see is when you're defending your property or yourself from violence being applied to them. For instance, if I take your pencil, you can use force to take it back. Why? Because the pencil is scarce. Only one of us can use it. So, violence will be applied to one of us. So, let us choose the lesser of two evils and let the force NOT be applied to the one who has a better claim to the pencil.

But information is non-scarce. When I use your idea, that in no way prohibits your use of the same idea. So, scarcity cannot be used as justification.

Your sales will drop if I redistribute the contents of your book for free? Well, you don't own future potential sales. You don't own your potential customers, their money, and their potential custom. If I open a shop right next to yours, I am not "stealing" the customers from you, since you never owned them to begin with. When you're saying that information is property, you're saying that you own potential future business transactions. But that is clearly ridiculous, since it contradicts other people's ownership of themselves and their property.

In general, utilitarian arguments cannot be used as a basis for morality. Such arguments allow nine people to rip a tenth person apart and harvest his organs. [...]

Let me repeat my previous question: does the writer of Kamakura owe nothing to Go Seigen and Kitani Minoru for using their completely new and very specific ideas? Why is it that the specific way of arranging black-and-white letters on paper is "property", but a specific way of arranging black and white stones on a somewhat thicker piece of wood is not?

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