imaginary family values presents

yesh omrim

a blog that reclines to the left


Copy. Right.

23 June 2004

Let’s talk for a few minutes about copyright. Copyright, you see, is the right to copy. That’s why they call it copyright. Unfortunately, some people, even people I generally respect, don’t copy this idea.

For example, Jesse Taylor is upset at the prospect of legislation that would authorize DVD “sanitizing” services, such as ClearPlay. The movie industry is up in arms over DVD sanitizers, and both sides have been duking it out in court for at least a year.

Taylor complains: “If the government can allow my copyrighted property to be sold in an altered fashion without my approval”—Stop right there. Your copyright to what you write does not give you an alterright. If you let me make a copy of something that you wrote, and then I alter it, without copying it, then I am in the right, because I made no copy. Right?

Elsewhere, Jeff Dillon is offended that Google uses Linux, and has modified Linux, but it has not made these modifications public. Linux is of course distributed under the General Public License, but since Google never gives a copy of their modified Linux to anyone outside of Google, the GPL doesn’t oblige them to show their modifications, no matter how much money they make by using them. Dillon sees this as a flaw in the GPL; he would like future versions of the license to force Google, or other companies that build services on top of GPL-licensed software, to give more back to the community.

Dillon says: “In today’s world, a fair percentage of the software being used is not being distributed to the client”—Stop right there. The authors of Linux have a copyright in the code they wrote, but their copyright does not give them a useright. If I want to restrict the use of software I write, then I have to make contracts with everyone who gets a copy of it, and if I catch someone misusing a copy, I have to prove that they consented to a contract and are now violating it. By contrast, if I put software under GPL, and someone copies it in a way that violates its terms, I have a much easier case. Whether or not the copier consented to the GPL, I have the copyright, and if they can’t prove I gave them the right to make their copies, they are not in the right. Copy?

On alternate Tuesdays, I would admit that ClearPlay and Google are not entirely right. It is kind of silly to believe that you can improve a movie by stripping out the “profanity, nudity and gory violence” from it; if the film is worth watching at all, the naughty bits are important for appreciating it. And since Google has hired some of the best computer programmers in the business, and made megabucks off of their work with Linux, they should make good on their VP’s promise to “give something back”.

But that has nothing to do with copyright. Copyright is the right to copy. If the principles behind copyright are truly important to you, you shouldn’t use “copyright” to refer to any wrong that doesn’t involve copying. Right?