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The SOA Objection

May 18, 2009

Actual progress today on the book – seven pages of chapter four.  Thank FSM for heat waves keeping me inside, I suppose.  It feels good to be moving forward, at a much faster pace than I was pre-mini-fame.

I’m just starting part two of Lessig’s Remix, and it’s definitely going to be a multi-day job understanding his first argument, about different kinds of sharing economies.  It’s a bit complicated and I want to give it more attention than one reading will provide.

Lessig is definitely not anti-property rights.  Too many people in the cultural conversation about copyright and IP discuss the economics of intellectual property with a sort of Wilford-Brimley-in-suspenders-pasted-with-Libertarian-flair mode, grumbling “Quit yer bellyachin’ and do good work and the Market Will Provide.” And that “work” is not something for which you should continue to be paid after it’s done, no doubt an easier belief to hold when you’re, say, a programmer or database or web site designer who can count on your work needing continual amendment and tinkering and updating to keep generating an income flow.

Take for example this line of reasoning, as seen in a recent Slashdot conversation thread in response to an author complaining about his book being pirated online, presented in the most Brimleyesque tone:

He could update his book? It’s 10 years old…With all due respect – isn’t this exactly what is the problem with copyright? People sitting on their asses, demanding to get paid, while blaming piracy for not getting money for some work created ages ago. To hell with that.

There’s certainly a point in wondering why someone would complain about a ten-year-old technical book on data compression, probably quite outdated by now, being pirated.  But the point in question is what I’ll call the SOA Objection, since it’s one of those arguments that keeps cropping up in the world of IP debate.  It’s wrong for creators to keep earning money long after the fact of their creation, “sitting on their asses” while the work keeps working.  You don’t hear the same people complain that, say, stock ownership is wrong because it enables the founder of a business, and his children, and his children’s children, to sit on their asses “getting money for some work created ages ago.” Or that a man who builds a big house for his family shouldn’t expect to keep it when the kids leave the nest, or leave it to them in his will, that he should “get off his ass and build a new one” the way a writer or programmer is expected to forsake royalties and write a new book or new software if he wants to keep making money. 

Writing a novel or painting a portrait should be, in the absurd calculus of the authors of Against Intellectual Monopoly, compensated when “the innovator earns her opportunity cost, that is: she earns as much or more than she could have earned while doing the second best thing she knows how to do, then efficient innovation is achieved, and we should all be happy.” So the lawyer who takes time off to write a novel is “compensated” at 100x the rate of the busboy who does the same; a system which only encourages the busboy to sell his novel to the lawyer to be compensated under her name.

Somehow, “soft” property is different in this mindset, the equivalent not of a capital investment creation like a house or a business, but merely a “fee-for-service” endeavor with no lasting monetary value to the creator beyond the time frame of its generation, and no claim to be had on it once it’s complete.  Creativity is treated like casual labor – the work is done, you’re paid for your time, and you have no say in what is done with it after that, now be off with you.

Lessig’s book is exciting, and interesting, and not at all in this vein.  I’m looking forward to the rest of it.  There’s a contest to “Remix” it, but alas remixes are limited to 300 words and I think this monolith of a book review wouldn’t qualify as a remix anyway.

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