The opening statement of this argument contains a serious fallacy, or at least asserts an assumption about U.S. copyright and intellectual property law that is nowhere to be found in the law itself. The statement argues that using words and a language that have been used before constitutes theft, by which I take it the speaker means plagiarism.

In fact, American copyright law explicitly does not protect words or phrases, and rarely offers strong protections for so much as a sentence or a paragraph. The law is in fact ambiguous on exactly how much is needed to make up an amount of "speech" deemed protectable under copyright. Quoting a line of a short poem might be regarded as infringement in the courts, whereas quoting several paragraphs of a longer work, even without permission from the author, may well be considered "fair use" and not an infringement, not a theft, and certainly not plagiarism, as long as due credit is given to the presumed author.

American law does not regard one a thief for "receiving information." Copyright law is (or was) directed at those who made unauthorized copies and attempted to profit from selling such copies, without due compensation to those who created the originals. Intellectual property law has long made, or at least tried to make a key distinction between ideas (which in themselves are not copyrightable, and only patentable when they take a form one can consider in some way tangible) and the form of expression a given author gives to those ideas, in word, picture, or sound (or a combination of all three). At least until recently, it has only been the specific form and expression that has been protectable. Fast-shifting technologies have rendered much of that law materially superfluous and practically unenforceable, and much of what we see now in the confusion that surrounds these issues is the law's imperfect and ungraceful attempts to catch up with the reality of that technology.

While Richard Stallman and others are rightly concerned about the potential of bad case law to create some sort of intellectual property police state, it is the nature of our chosen legal system to attempt to apply principles that worked in the past to judging present cases. This attempt to extend past legal precedent to new and unknown territory is called stare decisis, and is the basis of perhaps nine tenths of the law or more. No, it is far from perfect. It can and it does result in absurd injustices over the short run, many of which are far from trivial, some of which have proven deadly to those who chanced to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, through absolutely no fault of their own.

As for your debts to those who taught you, in many cases you (or someone else, in many cases some number of our fellow citizens and resident aliens who paid taxes and subsidized our schooling) have already paid for what it took for you to be capable of expressing your thoughts. If, and I suspect it is true, recent revisions to copyright law have overstepped the bounds of the longstanding distinction between ideas and expression, at some point in time (I don't predict when) that law will be struck down as inconsistent with well-established legal precedent, or as a pernicious impediment to commerce, property rights and other rights protected under law. If and when it happens, stare decisis will have worked in your favor, mine, Stallman's and (I hope) that of the commons.

As for the contention that copyright violates the first amendment: there is a principle of "conflict of rights" and this particular conflict is a tension that has long existed, has been well-recognized and has received almost endless attention in both legal scholarship and in the judgements rendered in individual cases.

"Conflict of rights" is much of the reason we have lawyers, and probably one reason we have so many of them. Invent a legal system that does not give rise to such conflicts and you will either be the greatest hero of the 21st century or a person marked for death by vested interests. Perhaps both.

Copyright law became desireable only once the technology existed to make copies relatively cheaply. Shakespeare survived without copyright protection in part because, at least for most of Shakespeare's productive life, players rarely were permitted to hold more than the copy it took to provide them with their own character's lines. Full scripts were rarely kept, or if they were kept they were most jealously guarded by writers and those who supported them. Instances of theft between playhouses were rampant, vicious and most probably much of the reason that Shakespeare probably got more benefit from court patronage than ever he did directly from the publication, sale and distribution of copies of his works. Similar stories can be told for most of the others you mention. In most cases, the people you mention enjoyed some form of patronage which provided (not always very well) for their support and subsistence.

Those creators who were somehow better rewarded for their works were, in most instances, able to extract fees or compensation by some means other than the sale of books or copies of their works. And in many cases, if you read history carefully, you may find that they were not handsomely rewarded at all. Copyright law, as it stands, has shown mixed result, I'll agree, when it comes to rewarding creators of great works. In a few cases it has made creators wealthy. In many others it has only made their publishers wealthy. Often the dividing line, however, has hinged on whether the creator managed to retain copyright and defend it, at least for as long as copyright has been a meaningful, somewhat enforceable or marginally useful legal concept.

While intrigued by notions like the Street Performer Protocol, I remain waiting to see whether and how any such principle will prove itself in action. I agree that copyright has reached a possibly critical breaking point, though not entirely for the reasons outlined in the preceding speech.

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