Matt Ballin
Matt Ballin

Unfair Use

One of the big picture things that we're trying to deal with here is people are getting so comfortable now with the computer as a tool, and taking the computer for granted to the point where now people believe that they have a right to get music, literature, art, and other things for free over the Internet because they have access to them. And, that's a very, very dangerous train of thought, and that's one that I feel that if that train of thought is not challenged in the next couple of years, this thing has the potential to run completely amok, and throw commerce and creative entities and the way people relate to those completely upside down.
- Lars Ulrich, Metallica, ABCNews Interview

Intellectual property and other such "rights" have essentially existed to benefit society rather than the individual... The greatest reward musicians should have is their own music and nothing else.
- Ram Samudrala, The Free Music Philosophy, www.eff.org/pub/Intellectual_property/free_music.article

It has become common in some circles, almost a cliche, to call for the end of intellectual property as we know it - or altogether. "Information must be free," whine the proponents of legalized theft. The recent controversy over Napster and other internet music-sharing services has given them a new soapbox to stand on, and hordes of listeners young and old eager for somebody to applaud their evasion of the nature of their actions.

Many excuses have been made for the practice of copying music without permission. "The record companies charge too much - they're getting what they deserve!" "I'm not actually taking anything from them - they don't have any less music because I have copied it." Perhaps worst of all: "Music is an art, and art should not be subjected to the realm of profit."

This last statement expresses very clearly the intentions and premises of those who lead the music-stealing movement. They believe that art and other intangible creations are morally exempt from being protected as private property. Ram Samudrala, in his article "The Free Music Philosophy," quotes Richard Stallman as saying, "Control over the use of one's ideas really constitutes control over other people's lives; and it is usually used to make their lives more difficult." Mr. Stallman ignores the fact that intellectual property does not consist of ideas, but of specific applications of ideas. Any band is free to cover Metallica's music; they are not free to repackage a Metallica CD with their name on it, profiting parasitically from their popularity and talent. In a similar vein, any fan is free to record himself singing a copyrighted song; he is not free, however, to take as his own a proprietary rendition without payment. In fact, the reverse of Mr. Stallman's statement is true; to violate an artist's right to set the terms for distribution of his creations would constitute control over his life, and is certain to make it more difficult.

Property must be controlled by its owner, by virtue of his having earned it. Those who use Napster desire something they have not earned; like some medieval tyrant, they wish to force artists to share their talents without thought of compensation. This is the root of the Napster issue, and it has not been sufficiently addressed.

There have been countless articles about how internet music-sharing could take away the financial incentives for artists to produce, and they are all correct as far as they go. But they do not address the fundamental question: What is the nature and justification of property, and how does it apply here?

The source of property rights is the law of causality. All property and all forms of wealth are produced by man's mind and labor... You cannot obtain the products of a mind except on the owner's terms, by trade and by volitional consent. Any other policy of men toward man's property is the policy of criminals, no matter what their numbers.
- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Music exists only by virtue of the productive effort and creative talents of the artist. Justice, then, dictates that the artist shall have sole rights to the product of his mind; should he decide to make it available, commercially or otherwise, it must be on his terms alone. So why should he make it available at all? One simple reason - personal profit.

Profit can come in many forms. A capitalist is not just one who seeks material gain for its own sake - a capitalist is one who seeks value, in all its myriad varieties. He does so primarily through the means of production and trade. It is perfectly proper for an artist to be a capitalist. In fact, the alternative to a value-seeking artist is a valueless or value-destroying artist; that the above describes most contemporary art is no coincidence. A culture which does not believe in giving value in exchange for art should not expect to receive any from the artist, and will get precisely what it deserves.

This attack upon a free market for art is not just an attack upon profit. It is a fundamental affront to the principle of property itself. Intellectual property is not a separate and disconnected matter from physical property; it is the basis for all property. Man's right to property comes from his right to own his life, to choose his actions, and to enjoy the benefits they bring to him. Man's means of gaining property is the application of his mind; he must decide what are his goals and his methods of achieving them. If it is accepted that people have no right to the product of their minds, than they have the right to nothing at all. That most Napster users do not or cannot make this connection does not change the situation. By giving up on the idea of intellectual property, they have given up on property altogether. If they turn away from an artist's ownership of his music, they have turned away from the mind itself - and defense of the mind is the only means by which any property rights at all can be defended consistently.

This is not a minor issue, and it is not one which will affect only large record companies and multi-million dollar rock bands. This is a blow at the softest spot on the armor of modern capitalism - it's philosophical basis - and it affects each and every lover of life and freedom in existence. The only valid argument against music theft is support of the artist's right to pursue his own interests, financial or otherwise. This argument must be made often and it must be made loudly. When intellectual rights are abolished, when people accept that music cannot be the property of an individual because it is a product of the mind, than no other property is safe. In their unashamedly selfish defense of their rights, Metallica have acted quite admirably. As yet, they stand alone.

Copyright 2001, Matthew Ballin


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