Rope knotted around a post

It’s high school, and I believe copyright is ridiculous.

My dad has introduced me to Project Gutenberg, an ever-growing library of books in the public domain, and I am spellbound. Contained within its creaky website are thousands of books that are owned by nobody. Or maybe everybody. After all, I could download one and do whatever I wanted with it. I could republish The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, only with the protagonist’s name changed to something patently absurd like “Benedict Cumberbatch”, and I would be utterly free of consequences, because I own those stories now as much as anyone else. They are free to be remixed, reworked. They belong to none of us, and all of us.

I discover Creative Commons, an organization that seeks to turn copyright on its head. Instead of hoarding the rights to what I create, Creative Commons suggests that creative works might be better shared. They provide a number of permissive licenses to encourage this, based on a few simple questions: Do you want attribution? Can others make money off of your work? And finally, should the people who remix your work share it under similar terms?

In December 2007, my favorite comic strip, FoxTrot, lays bare the ridiculous irony of draconian copyright protections on movies. This is only months after the Motion Picture Association of America begins issuing cease-and-desist letters to people who shared a cryptographic key–the sort of thing one would need if you were trying to make digital copies of your home DVD collection. In this pre-streaming digital age, publishers of music, movies, and video games are vicious in their pursuit of those who “pirate” content and so eager to punish them that even those who get their copies legitimately are caught in the crossfire.

It is the era of “You wouldn’t steal a car.” The zealots at the MPAA and RIAA who ruin the lives of everyday people by targeting them with exorbitant lawsuits would have you believe that copying a digital file is a crime deserving of rabid prosecution. In their world, art is a commodity, only to be experienced by those who pay the appropriate dues. It is an isolated, atomic, soulless view of culture, a thin broth made from the barren bones of capitalist individualism, and copyright law is the force that allows it to continue.

I have graduated from college, and I think copyright is critical.

Say what you will about Tumblr, but the blogging site brings me into contact with a kaleidoscope of different voices. Growing up in suburban Oregon, I hardly knew anyone who we’d call an “independent artist,” but here on Tumblr in the mid-2010’s, I see them everywhere. Artists supporting themselves on commissions. Artists making creations for their Etsy shops. Tumblr is prismatic with independent artists, all trying to eke out an existence doing what they love.

In the mid-2010’s, communicating reactions via short clips from copyrighted TV shows–reaction GIFs–has become a cornerstone of the modern Internet dialect. The piracy wars have reached a detente with the rise of streaming services. Link aggregators like Digg and Reddit are booming. We have reached a season of flourishing; there is content everywhere on the Internet. What you want you will always find in abundance.

Want a badass GIF of Walter White from Breaking Bad? You can find a dozen different iterations of the exact same shot. Want a “Keep Calm” mug for your favorite hobby? There will be three nearly identical iterations on Redbubble. The provenance of content on the Internet has become as irrelevant as the sourcing of your tap water: all that matters is when you open the spigot, it flows.

And like all lawless frontiers, this is exploited by the powerful. Apparel stores, big brands, and even popular musicians steal independent artists’ work, sometimes as blatantly as copy-pasting. People who depend upon their creations for their livelihood watch as the powerful rip them off to log a few extra dollars on their quarterly earnings reports.

Occasionally, one artist will manage to get the stolen piece taken down.

My girlfriend is a journalist. Every day, she swims against the immense tidal forces threatening to wash her entire industry out to sea. She will spend weeks chasing a story, following up loose ends, putting together a narrative so readers can understand the forces that affect their lives, and some rando will copy-paste the entire article content on Facebook because they don’t like the paywall. They want the content, it seems, but they don’t believe she deserves to be paid for it.

Everything’s free game on the Internet, y’know. If it shows up in Google, it’s public domain. You should be grateful for the exposure. It’s not exactly the same, so what’s the issue?

When I write a link roundup about the Ferguson protests, I think for the first time about the source of the images I use. I begin crediting my sources. I rely more heavily on open-license resources like the photos at Unsplash so that I’m not stealing people’s work. I chuckle when I read about an indie game developer implementing a clever anti-piracy feature.

“It all boils down to this,” I write when a beloved RPG begins facing financial difficulties. “Content is created by the hard work of people, and those people deserve to be paid. Good content doesn’t exist unless its creators are supported.”

Copyright, it seems to me, is how we ensure people benefit from their own creative endeavors.

So, which is it then?

Is copyright a draconian, artificial construct that stifles creative human expression and commodifies culture? Or is it a critical safeguard against exploitation? Does a creator own the ideas they put into the world and deserve to profit from them, or should culture be remixed freely?

And it’s not just copyright; like a fractal, you start seeing this pattern repeat itself in social dilemmas across the board. If protesters for racial justice destroy a hard-working family’s small business, who deserves our sympathy? If we create a single-payer healthcare system, we’ll eliminate thousands of jobs in the for-profit healthcare sector–so, what, are those people just out on the street? If landlords can’t collect rent and can’t evict due to the pandemic1or… other reasons 🙃, how are they supposed to put food on the table? If an employer hires migrant workers and pays them sub-minimum wages under the table, aren’t we upset about the hard-working Americans who had their jobs stolen? These examples may seem wildly different from one another in their content, but at their heart, they share a core assumption, one made invisible in its ubiquity in modern American society.

Do you see it? Squint hard. Tilt your head2to the left, naturally.

Why, in this day and age, is it a fucking competition to survive?

What happens if an independent artist’s work is stolen? They can no longer profit from it. The money stops coming in. Without money, they cannot afford to survive.

If a small business is destroyed, a family may have to take out loans to rebuild. Their life savings might go up in smoke. The money stops coming in. Without money, they cannot afford to survive.

Without the layers of bureaucratic bullshit jobs supporting the for-profit healthcare industry, many people might be out of work. The money stops coming in.

A worker whose boss chooses to save money by hiring under the table is out of work. The money stops coming in.

A landlord who can no longer extract a toll for providing a basic human right–well, the money stops coming in.3It shouldn’t have been coming in in the first place, because that replicates the very problem, but whatever, the pattern holds because of the layers of debt and exploitation in our society.

And without money, we cannot afford to survive.

In every case here, we are trained to see this as a fight between individual parties. Protester versus small business owner. Local worker versus migrant worker. Insurance company employee versus… people who want healthcare, I guess? 😕

But each of us wants nearly the same thing. We want shelter to keep us safe and comfortable. We want food to fill our bellies. We want time to work on the projects that matter to us, whether that’s going fishing, writing blog posts, building model trains, fixing up the old church, or creating art. We want health. We want community. We want meaning. We are allied in our desires, so why are we in competition with one another?

We’re taught to see scarcity in the world around us. If there is not enough to go around, then why wouldn’t you see every incursion as a threat? At a lavish banquet, an unexpected guest is a welcome surprise; when the pantry’s bare, they’re a burden. And when scarcity rules, compassion is a liability. Even though we want the same things, we learn to see each other as rivals. We’re dogs fighting over scraps, looking for any foothold we can use to claw out an advantage.

But is there truly not enough to go around? After all, American farmers dumped milk and destroyed crops earlier this year because they just couldn’t sell them. Your neighborhood supermarket throws out tons of good food each day–and likely compacts it into inedible cubes. There are empty houses and empty rooms everywhere in this country. Workers know how to plant and pick crops, build houses, lay cable, fix cars. Hobbyists know how to operate radio, hunt for meat, write programs, design games. Our world is overflowing with bounty, both in the land and in our hearts and minds.

You just can’t profit off abundance.

I’ve seen each of these examples trotted out as argument against progressive change. Each one pits our values and humanity against the gargantuan weight of society. Protesters fighting for racial justice or small business owners? Pick one. Free creative culture or artists who can support themselves? Pick one. Guaranteed healthcare for everyone or jobs for thousands of insurance company employees? Pick one.

Do you want something frivolous like dignity or freedom or justice or health, or do you want people to be able to afford to survive?

Pick one.

Pick one, they say, because they refuse to see that that is a false choice, that our binary thinking is born of a false scarcity, that there are trees in the forests and seeds in the earth, there are roofs to go around, there is knowledge and creativity and compassion and fellowship in our hearts no matter if we’re getting paid. Pick one, they insist, but we’re not between a rock and a hard place, we’re against a wall we built over generations, brick by brick, assuming it would serve us.

Society is just a name for the decisions we make together. There is nothing sacred about it, nothing more than our collective belief, and yet we can’t bring ourselves to believe that everybody deserves to survive, period?

Pick one.

If artists didn’t have to choose between guarding their profits and starving, art could just be culture again, free to be enjoyed and shared like the songs and myths of the ancient world. One story could birth a hundred more, a game naturally reworked wherever it travels to reflect the players. If workers and business owners were guaranteed shelter, food, and health no matter what, they could join a march for racial justice unafraid of blowback, add their voices to the chants, care more fully for their neighbors. But we choose instead to perpetuate a society based on scarcity, where every action is weighed against the real risk of dying on the street, penniless, starving, and sick–a risk we ourselves have created.

Is this honestly the world we want?

Pick one.

When what we create no longer serves our humanity, does it deserve to exist?

Pick one.

By our hands we built it, and with our hands we can tear it down.

Pick one.

We can reject the false choice. Reject the transformation of society into an untouchable idol. Recognize the assumptions and the takens-for-granted.

Pick one.

Why must we choose?

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This work is in the public domain, because… it kinda has to be, yeah? I’m partial to the spirit of the WTFPL, personally. Whatever, it’s just words.