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An Interesting Week if Property Matters

  • August 1, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

If there is an underlying principle to the thing called "justice," it is that everyone is entitled to -- and must receive -- the fruits of his or her labors. This applies to both sides of the equation: if one has gone into the criminal line of work, the payment is jail, or a fine, or, metaphorically, the rope. This is not a new idea.

And if one produces something, that person is entitled to the proceeds.

This has become more complicated as the world has. For instance, in a very big project such as the production of automobiles or computers, a lot of people are involved. Some do the creative work. Some do the assembly. Some -- and this is too frequently overlooked -- put up the money to get the whole thing running and to pay the others until the enterprise becomes self-sustaining, and thereby take a risk in that the enterprise may never achieve that goal, and so are rewarded in dividends if it does. But still it follows: you're paid for what you do, what you provide.

If you are the sole producer of a thing -- a book manuscript, a piece of software, a really nifty bottle opener -- you additionally get to name its price. If the price is too high, nobody will buy your product. If it's too low, a lot of people will buy it but you won't realize the value of your contribution, and if you're smart you'll raise your price. You may also, if you like, give away your work. You may ask that people send you a postcard from the place they live, or photographs of themselves, or menus from local restaurants -- doesn't matter. It's up to you. This is freedom, and it includes the freedom to fail (if your product is no good or your price is too high). This freedom is enjoyed, really, by enterprises of all sizes.

What's more, your creation is covered by laws protecting what is called "intellectual property." This serves the practical and just purpose of helping to assure that even if your product is as intangible as 200,000 words in a particular order -- a book -- or a unique arrangement of zeroes and ones -- a software program -- or a piece of metal bent just so -- that cool cap lifter -- it is yours just as surely as if it were a house that you built and moved into. People are not allowed to decide that they will to move into your house; they are not allowed, either, to take over your manuscript, program, or bottle opener (or the design of your car, if you have that kind of great big enterprise).

This is all pretty basic stuff. Pretty obvious. But now a new agenda has arrived, and its purpose is to obscure these things. It holds that your ideas are not your own; your intellectual work belongs to anyone who would like to use it, just as that misguided couple of Vermonters believed that they were entitled to whatever home they cared to live in. The battle between "justice" and "entitlement" is being fought on many fronts.

One of those is by pressure -- that there's somehow something wrong with you if you have the temerity to suppose that your creation belongs to you. You need not spend much time in the Linux world to find this trend at work. You need not travel far to find permutations of "freedom" not seen since the results of 1917 Russia. The problem is that this never works when it is codified. When you help someone beset by hard times, that is decency and compassion. When you are coerced into doing so, it is extortion. If you write something and give it away, that is you exercising your freedom over your creation. If you are pressured into doing so, it is not.

The pressure is real. Were you to visit the Free Software Foundation's site, you would find the assertion that software that does not meet its specification of "free" is somehow inferior. Again, as you travel the Linux circles, you'll find that many have bought uncritically into this notion, even though those who are not still supported by their parents would seldom think of giving away whatever it is they do for a living. (And spare me the nonsense about speech and beer -- the argument is wholly specious and fit only to be an artifact wiped away by rolls of Michael Stutz's designer science.)

So now we have this new phoney-baloney license to cover other stuff. There will be pressure to adopt it. The pressure will be brought by non-creators in hope of making a trend sufficient that some poor fools will buy into it in hope of gaining the approbation of the pierced-eyebrow set. Some probably will.

I still hold out the hope that the DSL is a hoax. It has all the earmarks -- the suggestion that it was two years in the making, for instance, which seems unlikely.

It is certainly a joke. What is unknown is whether it was an intentional one.

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