What would you say to Peter?

Peter Jaworski is a contributor to the libertarian Canadian blog The Volunteer.  In a post reprinted below, he wrestles with the idea of intellectual property, proposals to reform copyright law, and the use of copyleft licenses.  We ran across his essay because he draws extensively on the comic strips (and one of the Minute Memes) of Nina Paley, artist-in-residence here at QuestionCopyright.org.  Peter’s discussion expresses very well the deliberations of many people who are open to the critiques and proposals advanced on this site but who are, nevertheless, hesitant.

We’re reprinting it here partly to get your reactions.  Peter is honest about his emotional response to the idea that someone who puts a lot of effort into their art is entitled to something — reward, or control, or recognition — and this makes him doubt his support for sharing.  Interestingly, he reverses the usual position: he says “on most days, I […] think intellectual property is bunk. But I’m open to being persuaded, if you’ve got a good story to tell.”  He starts from a pro-sharing stance, but wonders if he’s right.  People like Peter are the “independent voters” of the copyright reform movement, if you will, and understanding their instincts is central to our mission.  What would you ask Peter?

Mimi and Eunice: Hyphenated Liberty

by Peter Jaworski on November 3, 2010

Hyphenated Liberty

Mimi and Eunice is a cartoon strip drawn by Nina Paley. Nina does not believe in intellectual property. She lets just anyone reprint her comic strips, provided no one pretends that the work is theirs. That’s the only restriction she views as legitimate — no fraud or attempt to mislead people about the originator of the work.

Nina endorses “copyleft.” Go ahead and click the link for an explanation. For an extended explanation of just what copyleft means, and why Nina is often grumpy, check out her blog post on the branding confusion with Creative Commons licences here.

Here’s a little video she put together highlighting her views on the difference between ordinary theft, and intellectual property “theft”:


And here are a couple of Nina’s older cartoons that capture some of her attitudes about copyright:

What makes Nina really interesting is that she isn’t opposed to copyright because she’s opposed to the market or to capitalism. Far from it (or so it seems to me). She likes the idea of people making money. Take these as an example:


I’m often unsure about how to view intellectual property. On most days, I agree with Nina. But I’d be curious to hear if anyone has a particularly strong opinion about copyright.

The video highlights an interesting fact about intellectual property “theft” — the first person doesn’t really “lose” anything. When I make a copy of a CD, for example, I haven’t taken away your ability to enjoy that CD. We both get to listen to that CD. And that’s different from me taking your physical property, taking your CD. Now I have the CD, and you don’t. I get to enjoy something that you can no longer enjoy.

I’m aware of the argument that copyright protection promotes new ideas, and promotes investment in things like music and movies and so on. On its face, that’s pretty persuasive, if it’s true. I don’t want there to be less music and fewer Disney cartoons. I want more music, more cartoons, more books, and more movies. If I’m going to spend a lot of my time writing a book, I’d like to be compensated financially. If there were no copyright protection, the first idiot with a bit torrent client can just take my work and no one would ever have to pay me for all the work that I’ve put into making the song, the movie, the book, the idea.

One counter to that argument is the “first-mover advantage” claim made by economists. The first entrant into a market has a surprisingly strong benefit, for many possible reasons. If you come up with an idea, you can be the first mover. That may be sufficient to motivate the making of just the same amount of thinking-based stuff. Maybe. Then the argument from outcomes would be overcome by appeal to what would happen without copyright.

When it comes to music and movies, I tend to think that what needs changing is the method of making money, not the enforcement of copyright protections. If we’re honest with each other, we can admit that we already operate on a system where people volunteer to pay for music. You don’t have to pay for music any more. Music is too readily available on the internet, and no amount of resources thrown at enforcement will end the torrent of, well, torrents.

In my mind, artists should view their music as reason for people to go to their concerts and buy their merchandise. They get paid for concerts, not for the music. The music is what entices the consumer to go to concerts.


I have friends in the music industry. Lindy Vopnfjord, in particular. I know how much work he puts into his music. I know that he should be, if the world were just and aware of what is good, rich as bananas. I still remember the first time I listened to his CD, Suspension of Disbelief, on a drive to Waterloo with my sister. I was like, “who’s this?” and she was like, “that’s my friend Lindy,” and I was like, “oh my God, this is going to be a disaster. But I’ll just be polite, swallow hard, and listen nicely.”

I listened nicely. And then I insisted we play the CD over again. And then again, for a third time. And then I was shocked that my sister knew this guy, and then I insisted that she introduce me.

True story.

Now Lindy and I are good pals and chums, and he fills me in on what’s happening in the Toronto music scene, as well as how musicians try to make money. It’s not easy. And I can understand how I’d feel if I spent all this time writing lyrics, putting together a melody, etc., and some douche sitting behind a computer clicked some keys and, voila, all my work is right there available for anyone and everyone to take and listen to without having to give me a shiny dime. All those pleasant moments punctuated by Beautifully Undone (one of Lindy’s songs), and no benefit accrues to the artist. Seems unfair.

Still, like I said, on most days, I agree with Nina, and think intellectual property is bunk. But I’m open to being persuaded, if you’ve got a good story to tell. I’m all ears.

Addendum: The argument from effort above, if we can call it that, gets real short shrift from Nina. She has a running gag that makes use of poop as the central artefact to mock intellectual property. Here’s that series:

(P.S., you don’t have to pay me for writing all of this, even if you liked it. It took me a while to get all the links for you, and to embed all those videos, and to think about the story I’ll tell you, and how to construct the argument or two that I’ve included in this post. You can’t claim that you wrote it, not that I’m suggesting that you would. But here it is, free for you to look at, read, excerpt and otherwise make use of. It’s interesting to note the proliferation of blogs — essentially free content — that exists out there in cyber-inter-web-world with something approaching zero per cent of bloggers making money off of blogging. But just look at all the content that is produced! Is it really true that, without copyright protection, we’d have less intellectual property? Blogs make me think there wouldn’t be less…)

6 Comments on "What would you say to Peter?"

  1. I’d say that the struggle is a good thing because you’re thinking about it. I’d share how I took the leap (full of all of the reasons and rationale). I’d say that the damage done by copyright to normal people far outweighs the perceived gains to artists (imagine, for instance, that your sister hadn’t shared her copy of Lindy’s album with you — imagine you hadn’t written this free article and I’d never heard of Lindy). I’d say that the episode “The Wish” of Buffy the Vampire Slayer shows us an alternate universe where vampires run wild and feast on human beings who are treated like cattle. Giles is asked, before breaking the spell and returning them to the other world, how he can be sure that the other world is better. He replies “Because it has to be.” Imagine Nina’s “Balance” cartoon strip without the second pane. It seems scary initially — how do we know it’s better? Easy: Because it has to be.

  2. Still, I wonder why creators have to sell to big companies the creations of their works.  I put up to your consideration, the Birthright Campaign Setting by both Collin McCoumb and Richard Baker.  It was a great setting, however, in the five years it came out, TSR was bought out by Wizards of the Coast, and a new D&D came out.

    All support for Birthright dried up except for fan support.


    I am one of the contributors to Birthright.net and the site as been licensed — for a while  — as the official fan site of the setting.  We have, by my mark, built more than 14 thousand pages of lore for the Birthright campaign setting. There is a lot of fan support for the setting – there’s fan produced books, the wiki, and a conversion to 3.x, and even a conversion to the new Dungeons and Dragons game.

    Yes, the original creators deserved to have compensation.  However, when a big company owns a piece of work, the current copyright law allows them to lock it up tight.  Right now, the license that Birthright.net operates under is pretty liberal but restrictive –

    “We are allowed to re-write, but not directly copy. If you are really worried the official permission from them is on the wiki. Our actual agreement with WOTC expired when they retracted our official fan-site status as far as I’m aware, but I think that we are ok as long as we avoid cut ‘n’ paste type stuff and generally honour the setting, and don’t do any of their pet peeves (kill off or change major characters, other stuff that could ‘invalidate their later products’.)”

    I made the distinction that –

    A. A printing monopoly on a piece of Art (such as the Birthright Campaign Setting) has some benefits.

    B. But, do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages?


    I came to the one conclusion that they don’t.  When a company owns a piece of art, literary piece, or a song; the original person loses his right to due compensation.  Yet there is another side of the coin, when an Estate sits on a literary piece, art piece, or a song, they are hurting their fellowmen.

    It is often in the best interest of the American people that copyright is limited to a fair number of years, 10 to seven; and for each year beyond that, a progressive tax is paid.  After the tax is too expensive than the worth of the work to be held in corporate hands, especially when they don’t do anything with it; then its best to release that work into the public domain and allow those who like the setting to build upon that work and to revolutionize it.

    Peter, Lindy deserves his due, but when an estate or a company owns a piece of work it does greater harm to Mankind than good.



    Elton Robb

  3. I just can’t understand that “argument from effort”. What if nobody take and listen to? Lindy wouldn’t get a shiny dime anyway but maybe she’d feel better?

    Making money from music is difficult as always. I don’t think copyright is making it easier but more difficult in most cases. But I’m open to be persuaded too.


  4. I have several reactions to this:

    1) The notion that treating information as property will automatically lead to profit from the effort put into creating it is deeply flawed with or without copyright. There are many variables involved. The first of which is whether it’s actually worth anything to the receiver. This often does not track with how much effort you put into it. Some of the articles I sweat and suffer for the most do not get much interest at all from readers, while some of my throwaway opinion pieces are extremely popular. Go figure. Effort measures your cost, not the value you created — that they are not the same is basic economics (I think this is what Nina is on about with the “pooperty” jokes, though I’m not fond of analogies in which my work is “poop”!).

    Also, being able to stop something that doesn’t make money from being viewed is not the same as ensuring that you get paid when it is viewed — all too often it just means it never gets viewed.

    2) Free downloads are no measure of this. Who doesn’t pick up free pamphlets — but how many of them would you have paid for? Chances are, it’s only a tiny few. The same applies to music, stories, or movies. And when you get down to it, the same people who’d pay you voluntarily are probably pretty close to the people who’d actually take a chance on your product in a physical store anyway. Like him, I highly favor legally-acquired music. I also like CDs and other durable media. For the music I care about, I will absolutely pay for a permanent, lossless copy. But of course, there’s also lots of take-it-or-leave-it music for which I won’t. Also, I will pay MORE for music I can re-use (i.e. under free-licenses), because I see real value in that for my own projects.

    3) You are spot-on that we can’t really expect to enforce copyright compliance in today’s world, so we’re really dealing with voluntarism anyway. Maybe it’s better to acknowledge that, and thank your fans when they support you rather than berating them when they don’t. A sense of entitlement is a dangerous thing for an artist.

    4) As a libertarian (and therefore assuming you place a high value on private property) I think it’s important to note that “intellectual property” is a terrible misnomer designed to mislead. What it in fact does is to weaken private property, by allowing individuals to regulate what other individuals do with what would otherwise be considered their own private property. The notion that an artist or musician can tell you what you can or cannot view or listen to on your own computer in your own home is terribly invasive. And, as some have noted, actually enforcing this kind of restriction would amount to support the “surveillance state”.

    5) Hypothetically, if there were no way to produce art profitably in a world without copyright, I would be strongly motivated to support some kind of copyright law. I think the jury is still out on this question, but let’s consider both cases:

    i) Yes, you need copyright to produce lots of art in society. Okay fine. But do you need 90+ years of it? I think not.A lot of evidence show that most of the money a work will ever make is made in just a few years after publication. After that, things get pretty thin. Even allowing for the occasional sleeper, 20 years ought to be _plenty_ of time to be profitable.

    Nor do you need to restrict every possible use, including non-commercial uses.

    Strike copyright down to 20 years (like patents) and extend “fair use” to essentially agree with the terms of the “CC By-NC-ND” license. Plus, show some respect for the public domain by making it much easier to determine when a work enters it (E.g. require marking of copyright date on published works, grant copyright exclusively for registered works (a grace period is okay). There are other suggestions for keeping copyright more in line with “limited times” and “limited scope”. Do these things, and we can all live together profitably and happily. I hope. 🙂

     ii) No, you don’t really need copyright to support artistic businesses. In this scenario, the “Creator Endorsed” , “1000 True Fans”, “Collective Patronage”, or “Connect With Fans + Reason To Buy” plans work out. Larger and larger free culture projects are produced. Eventually the scale is comparable to today’s established entertainment industry. Proprietary culture becomes more and more nothing but a hinderance to the progress of culture.

    In this scenario, I think it’s hard to justify continued support for anything but a very, very weak “author rights” type of system (basically, attribution-only licensing). A lot of people are experimenting in this area, and I think a certain “wait-see” attitude is called for. Some of the results are really encouraging, though.

  5. I think the real argument in this is a matter of redundancy. I believe copyright does provide some sort of protection on your work, which allows you to be the first on the bandwagon if you will.  I think it is also good because considering that if you don’t have any copyright on your work at all, any smuck can take your media product and sell it for their own profit gane. But their does come a point when your work has become redundant and outdated. I mean how many of you people still run MS DOS? That was made 20 years ago and I don’t think Microsoft is selling any more licenses. This is mainly because this software is now redundant, and Microsoft is getting their money from newer products such as Windows 7 and ofice 2010.

    The same applies to the media industry. Films that were made 10 years ago are most likely gone and forgotten. The industry are selling the newer products that are more relevant to today’s market, and the chances of any movie from 10 years ago pulling in any more profit is unlikely. Now admittedly some movies do still get sales after the 10 year mark, But it’s really a question of whether it is actually worth pulling in that last final penny. So I think the real question in copyright reform is whether we should lower the amount of time it takes for a media product to come into the public domain, and what timespan will be considered fair for both the public and the owners of the copyright.

    1. Ironically, the more popular a movie was 10 years ago, the less valuable it is now.  I was in the local used book & video store recently.  They have *lots* of videos, with multiple copies of most, especially the famous ones.  I can get a copy of any Disney movie for just a few bucks.  The bigger a movie was 10 years ago, the more people bought it when it came out on video.  The more people who bought it, the more people who later want to get rid of those videos because they now have other uses for the space in the drawer where the video sat.  The greater the supply of something, the lower the price it can command.  And, whatever price it fetches on the used market, the movie studio gets none of it.  So, after just 10 years, the exclusive copyright is arguably pointless, moreso if the work was popular.


      Another Peter