Copyright is the right thing, right?

Prior to learning more about the open movement, Creative Commons licenses, and the like, I had never questioned the idea of copyright law. It made sense to me – people come up with an idea or concept, execute it, and should earn the right to profit from it. Copyright laws spur innovation because there is an incentive for people to invent, create, put forth an effort knowing there is an exclusive benefit waiting for them at the end of it all.  If other people steal the idea for their own personal gain, that’s unfair. But the real question should focus less on the topic of what is fair (not that I’m implying fairness is not important) and more on the topic of can the idea really even be stolen?

Throughout the course of this semester, David has made it clear that ideas cannot be stolen. When we talk about private goods we are referring to goods that are both rivalrous and excludable. In other words, my consumption of a candy bar prevents somebody else from consuming it as well. Once I eat it, it’s gone. That’s it.

But can this happen with an idea? If I have an idea and somebody else uses it, does that mean I no longer have that idea? No, not at all. I still have it in my brain as much as they have it in theirs. Thomas Jefferson (as quoted by James Boyle) said:

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

If this is true, why are we so protective of the ideas we deem as ours? To be completely honest, I struggle with the concept of being truly open. There is still a part of me that worries somebody will take my idea, make it better, and get all the credit. My worry stems from a certain degree of feeling inadequate. Uncreative. Plain. I refuse to be the spark for somebody else to do something amazing and benefit from it in ways I was unable to do. But that’s silly. Yet those are the feelings copyright laws potentially let us feel and perpetuate.

What if we let our idea be the spark to inspire others? One idea could have such a far reaching impact if we let it. Yes, it is hard to change the way we view sharing but maybe it’s about time we made an effort. After all, copyright laws were invented by us. Like David said in class, if something is not under a copyright, it’s not that it is excluded from copyright laws. It’s that it was never included. Because at the end of the day, copyright laws are not a naturally occurring phenomenon in the universe.


Posted in: OER

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