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Piracy and the value of freedom

openSUSE community manager, Jos Poortvliet, wonders if putting a tax on the sharing of knowledge might limit social as well as economic growth…

I think you’ve heard about the piracy happening in the waters surrounding Somalia. Entire ships are captured, and their passengers are often hurt and sometimes even killed.

Interestingly enough, the term often associated with this kind of kidnapping and killing is also frequently used in computing terms for something quite different. Copying something and giving it away for free, without any motive for profit and without taking anything away from the original.

If I were a victim of actual piracy while sailing the seas, I would probably consider the word’s rampant misuse in technology circles as massively insulting. Especially as the victims of the technological form of ‘piracy’ seem to be doing rather well. To protect them against the hideous crimes committed, governments are willing to give up things like privacy and freedom of speech.

Of course, the ‘collateral damage’ done leads to protests. It’s not likely that you missed the SOPA blackout a while ago. For a day, hundreds of websites went black; joined in with the protests and so did many other FOSS projects. And, not surprisingly, the US Congress, or at least those within it supporting SOPA and similar things, backed off – for now. Freedom mattered more than the costs of ‘piracy’. Going forward, I will use the term ‘copyright infringement’, by the way.

So, good news. The modern, social media-permeated tech world beat the old-style media because it could mobilise people. And if you reach enough people and enough of them care about what you’re saying, you can change things. Freedom is luckily still somewhat important. Unfortunately, when it comes to our fundamental freedoms like communicating privately and without limits, both companies and governments have strong incentives to do the wrong thing and it won’t take long for the next attack to happen.

It is understandable. There are bad things out there – from child pornography to websites spouting crazy things like racism, silly conspiracies around inoculations, scams and much more. And yes, copyright does matter: free software depends on it to be able to go after anyone who is using free code to take users’ rights away.

But some people will always believe crazy things; and copyright lasting well over 60 years is well beyond reasonable and desirable. It’s just not worth it. As The Oatmeal cult online comic put it, SOPA is “like dealing with a lion which escaped from the zoo by blasting some kittens with a flamethrower”. In other words, not only are these measures against copyright infringement woefully inadequate, but they hurt things that we all love.

We are choosing the interests of a specific industry over the interests of society as a whole. While the strict copyright we have might be beneficial to that small industry, it hurts everything else: from universities to companies, from developing countries to developed ones. After all, the more knowledge that is shared, the more new knowledge that is generated. And by putting a tax on the sharing of knowledge, we tax the generation of more knowledge – ultimately limiting economic as well as social growth.

The industries fighting to protect and extend copyright know this, of course. They are losing the fight and, realising that, have resorted to questionable tactics and name-calling. For me that is proof enough that they are wrong. I think we should do anything to stop piracy (actual piracy). I think we should stop going after copyright infringers until the current copyright laws have been adjusted for the world we live in (there is this cool, new thing called ‘the internet’) and the industry which depends on it has ceased using morally questionable tactics to further their financial cause.