HomeOpinionThe Invisible Hum

by David A. Schmaltz Worldwidehippies – Piracy used to concern me deeply. Over a decade ago, I discovered than an ex-business partner had been passing off stuff I owned as his own, so I consulted with an intellectual property attorney. He determined that I did own the stuff, then sent a nasty gram to the offender, who simply denied the facts. “Well, you could sue him,” the attorney reported. “That will cost you over a hundred thousand dollars, and even if the court finds in your favor, they’ll be no way to force them to pay up or prevent them from just changing their company name and continuing the practice.”

This was humbling news. My copyright clearly designated ownership, but gave me no protection against unscrupulous operators. So, I called up my ex-partner and told him that I would make a point of telling prospective clients to watch out for him, as he was a pirate. “If you do that, I’ll sue!” he sputtered. “Great,” I thought, “then my insurance will cover the cost of litigation, and I will most certainly win.”

Turns out that there’s a ton of law against unscrupulous operators, but exercising the rights granted under those laws gets problematic. Anything I create could be swiped at any time, and I’m unlikely to even know about it, let alone have actual recourse. Now, the monied segment of the content industry lobbies Congress to pass new stricter laws to ‘prevent intellectual property piracy.’ Might as well throw in a rider banning lustful thoughts while they’re at it.
The question might be how those who create intellectual property might thrive in pirate-infested waters, since it seems the pirates will always be there, just as they have always been there.

Scott McCloud in his brilliant Understanding Comics, classifies art as anything done without the explicit intention of making money from it. Under this rather strict definition, much of what fancies itself art, couldn’t quite qualify. That intellectual property my ex-partner swiped wasn’t art because I’d created it with the explicit intention of making money with it.

But much of what I create certainly satisfies McCloud’s definition. I write daily on a variety of topics, and I learned long, long ago that if I withheld by gift until I found a patron or sponsor, I wouldn’t do much writing. Me and the world might well be worse off for that decision.

So I give most of my stuff away. A few years ago, I had a semi-permanent gig writing provocative pieces for an online e-zine. Then the Great Recession happened and the editor explained that he no longer had a budget. I stopped writing pieces for him for a while, but finally submitted a piece that was just sitting around burning a hole in my heart, telling him that simply posting it would be payment enough. He sent me a small check and a huge appreciation. Today, there’s no market for content, but there’s more content than ever before. How could that be?

The Internet was founded upon some decidedly egalitarian principles. My friend Ward Cunningham, who invented the wiki, has steadfastly refused to charge a nickel for its use, and still doesn’t. He considers charging for his invention immoral, and I’m with him. Somewhere in there, commercial interests moved into the commune and began trying to charge for content. Most of these experiments have been crushing failures.

So, I’m sorry that there are pirates in the world. I’m sorry that people violate copyrights and therefore, presumably, short-change movie producers, news corporations, book publishers, and recording artists. I think their concerns are misguided and their energies better focused elsewhere. The people who gladly download a free pirated copy are not the same people who might gladly pay for that privilege.

The Internet is one bitch of an environment, worse if it’s mistaken, as so many of the later commercial operations have, as just another marketplace. It’s a bazaar, not a big box store. It’s a rough and tumble, wild west freak show, and it won’t be tamed or civilized. It thrives on the free exchange of ideas, and I figure I can choose to be a part of that free exchange or set my expectations where satisfaction is unlikely.

Of course the commercial interests have long lusted after some form of monopoly control over the free exchange of ideas. Not fully understanding that should they succeed in cutting open that cat and isolating its purr, it would necessarily sacrifice the cantankerous cat by doing so.

An Invisible Hum rules the internet, kinda roughly analogous to Adam’s Smith’s notorious invisible thumb. Like the thumb, it relies upon the goodwill of morally upstanding individuals. Sure, there are unscrupulous operators, and we’re schlemiels. We won’t find recourse in any rule or court of law. We could have understood what kind of place this was before we ever mistook it for the ultimate Big Box store.

©2012 by David A. Schmaltz – all rights reserved

David A. Schmaltz is a writer, consultant, and teacher living in Takoma Park, Maryland. He wrote The Blind Men and the Elephant, Mastering Project Work-How To Transform Fuzzy Responsibilities Into Meaningful Results (Berrett-Koehler 2003), and created the Mastering Projects Workshop, which presents a non-methodological perspective on how to get stuff done. He edits the PureSchmaltz.com blog. Contact him at david@projectcommunity.com.


The Invisible Hum — 6 Comments

  1. Pirates used to steal gold and bury it where even themselves could not retrieve it. Maybe gold was too advantageous in technical ways to a destructive force that we don’t understand altogether and it saved us… what if modern piracy is a form of pollination : a proliferating engine of worthy projections or seedlings. Money will not even be here to administrate libraries and museums so moneyless preservation, propagation and irrigation of creative flow will be curried by varying sworthyness. I for one am considering gifting recklessly mixing silver bullets into the slag of creation. I might even put price tags on my stuff and leave it all over the place… park benches, on the streets with my phone number. Zero security costs/ maximum trust= what is really possible: LOVE. thank you for your work~ JF

    • Johnny: Thanks for the warm appreciation. I know, from many years in the content business, that the people most worried about protecting their copyrights tend to be those most concerned that that last creation might be their last creation, like they’ve made it to the lilly pad and would like to not have to repeat that struggle again. Just anoint me now. Thank Yew, very much. An abundant attitude might consider that there’s a lot more, and better, where ever that last one came from. From this perspective, copyright might qualify as the means by which we smother creativity in favor of what we already created. Don’t know, myself. david

  2. Is it time for me to dust off my piece on the history of copyright and why it’s fundamentally technologically impossible to enforce copyright on anything distributed digitally?

  3. What a refreshingly logical article, well written without resorting to epithets or emotionally charged buzz words. Yet the obvious deduction is that SOPA and PIPA will do more harm than good. There are plenty of laws already on the books to address copyright infringements, though as you pointed out, the costs of redress and the emotional turmoil involved may not be worth it. If SOPA and PIPA became law, we may as well give ownership of the English language to the corporations. Thank you for a great read!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *