Copying Is Not Theft

When artists do work, they should be paid — no one is debating that. Musicians are paid when they perform at concerts, when they sell discs, and when they compose for someone. Artists are paid when they sell their artwork, when they are commissioned to make art, and when their art appears in art museums.

However, artists shouldn’t chase down and sue every adolescent who copies their work without advance permission. The job of artists is to create stuff — and for that they should be compensated. They should not necessarily be compensated for the distribution of their work, especially when computers and the Internet make it trivial to distribute bits at a near-zero cost.

At the end of the day, artists should be paid when they make stuff. Mozilla is a great example of a company that understands this. Let’s say that software engineers are artists for the sake of this example (in many ways, we are artists). So, Mozilla engineers get paid when they’re designing, programming, and submitting patches for Firefox, Thunderbird, and SeaMonkey. Yet, when the time comes for the software to be distributed, Mozilla engineers are not paid anything. All Mozilla software is free (as in freedom) and open source, as governed by the Mozilla Public License.

I can copy Firefox onto a CD, give it to my friend, and he can install Firefox on his computer — all without permission from or payment to Mozilla. In this model, it’s the actual act of authoring a new work that is compensated, and not the mere distribution.

Why am I ranting about this? Well, I just stumbled upon an awesome little song by Nina Paley about copying being different from theft which made me think about the differences between authoring something (a creative process) and distributing it (a very non-creative process).

Nina Paley singing “Copying isn’t theft”

And there’s a cute little cartoon that goes along with it.

Unsurprisingly, there have been a ton of people who have remixed the original cartoon, adding their own creativity to the original author’s work to create something new and different. This is an awesome example of the good that can come from the freedom to remix copyrighted works (although in this case, Nina released her work under a Creative Commons license).

(If you liked this, you might like Freedom of Speech on the Internet.)

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Feross Aboukhadijeh Hey, thanks for reading! I'm Feross Aboukhadijeh, a programmer, designer, teacher, and mad scientist. I am currently building WebTorrent, a streaming BitTorrent client for the browser, powered by WebRTC. In my free time, I work on StudyNotes, a website to help students study better and get into college.

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