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I started a thread of patents/copyrights a while back. I started skeptical of both. I'm now convinced that patents are good, but I'm still not convinced that copyrights are good (or that they are bad). I figured I might as well start a new thread on this.

Rand's argument is that people should have the right to exclusive control over (some) ideas they have for a limited time.

I'm not sure how this can be used to justify copyrights.

The only way copyrights can be effective is if they apply to works that are very similar to their own. Otherwise, someone might make small changes to a book and call it new. However, if someone takes someone's book and makes changes to it, isn't THAT their own idea/creation?

In other words, suppose someone writes a book, and I like it, but there are elements of the plot I dislike. So I make some changes to it (not minute ones, but they effect the overall story). The new book is similar enough to the old ones (with much/most of it being exactly the same) that it's obvious that it's virtually impossible that I could have written this new book without the old one.

Why shouldn't I be able to distribute this book? And if copyrights are good, why not allow me to have this copyrighted because it's new and created by me? Even if it's very similar to the other book, we can just as easily say that this new book could not have been created without me, and that it is a product of my own thought, and therefore I deserve a copyright to this. If so, this would mean a virtually limitless number of copyrights for every minute change and I see no way to justify that.

Someone might object that most of the value of the new book came from the work of the person who wrote the original (especially if they are very similar), and, therefore, I don't deserve to be able to distribute/read this idea without permission from the person who wrote the original book. However, this (1) doesn't change the fact that's it's new and I made it and (2) that the original book way very well have not been written without yet another book.

For example, let's say someone writes a book with a very novel idea (perhaps it's science fiction). Someone reads this and says "Wow, that's a cool idea." They then go off and write a book with the same idea, but the overall story is very different (so there's no copyright violation). Can't we just as easily say that they couldn't have written that book without the one that first came up with the novel idea, and therefore, that part of the value of this new book came from the old one?

Furthermore, suppose someone comes up with a groundbreaking new invention. This is a very new invention, and required a lot of thought to create it. Then, someone invents a very similar invention that is still fundamentally new (it can accomplish something the other invention couldn't). Can't we just as easily say that most of the value of this new invention came from the person with the very similar groundbreaking invention, and that therefore this person shouldn't get a patent for making a new invention? And if we reject this notion, and insist that the new invention should be patented by the inventor on the grounds that it accomplishes something new, and that it doesn't matter how similar it is to any other invention or how much of the value of this new invention came from another inventor, how then can we reconcile this with support of copyright?

Finally, suppose I write a new book which is very similar to another one and go around distributing/reading it to people for free. Wouldn't preventing me from doing so be a violation of my right to free speech?

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If you take most of someone else's work as your own, then you did not "make it" in any real meaning of the word. You can claim ownership to the parts you created, of course, but that is basically what it means to be a book critic or reviewer. Acting like you own something that is someone else's is dishonest and theft; it's no different than planting a flag on someone's car and then saying that because the flag is yours, that means you now own the whole car.

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You haven't established that what you've done is theft.My point is that if there should be copyrights for people's stories/songs because they made it, then I can't see how this wouldn't apply to stories/songs which are very similar to others because they are still unique, and therefore a creation of the person who made the new one. What about when someone makes a book that is different enough that you'd want to copyright it, but still could not have been made were it not for the creation of another book to inspire the author?In essence, why should copyrights only be awarded to works which are not very similar to any other works? How is making a book which is very similar to another not an intellectual creation?And, again, what about when someone makes an invention that is almost identical to another invention, but is still a new invention? Obviously, most of the work was done by the person who invented the previous invention, but we don't deny that a new patent must be made.

Edited by Mnrchst
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You haven't established that what you've done is theft.

My point is that if there should be copyrights for people's stories/songs because they made it, then I can't see how this wouldn't apply to stories/songs which are very similar to others because they are still unique, and therefore a creation of the person who made the new one. What about when someone makes a book that is different enough that you'd want to copyright it, but still could not have been made were it not for the creation of another book to inspire the author?

In essence, why should copyrights only be awarded to works which are not very similar to any other works? How is making a book which is very similar to another not an intellectual creation?

But in your example above, you mentioned a story where you changed some details from the original and then published it as your own. In that case they couldn't morally claim ownership of the parts that they had left the same as in the original.

As far as making more significant changes go, there is probably a point where a derivative work is different enough that you can claim it as original work (and therefore yours), and the exact place where that happens is probably hard to determine in the abstract.

The fact of the matter is, though, that any parts that you literally copy from someone you shouldn't morally be able to claim as yours; that is certainly dishonest and an appropriation of their rightful property.

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But in your example above, you mentioned a story where you changed some details from the original and then published it as your own. In that case they couldn't morally claim ownership of the parts that they had left the same as in the original.

I was demonstrating the absurdity of everyone getting a copyright for an original (as in unique) work as an argument against copyrights; I wasn't advocating a new type of copyright.

As far as making more significant changes go, there is probably a point where a derivative work is different enough that you can claim it as original work (and therefore yours), and the exact place where that happens is probably hard to determine in the abstract.

So why should you be able to have an original work be your property (assuming we're confident with our brightline between original enough and not original enough).

The fact of the matter is, though, that any parts that you literally copy from someone you shouldn't morally be able to claim as yours; that is certainly dishonest and an appropriation of their rightful property.

I agree with the first part; I'm not sure about the second part.

Edited by Mnrchst
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Why should anything be someone's property? Think about that for a little bit. I assume you believe that property rights exist, am I correct? (If not, we should probably address that first).

If you accept property rights as right in other cases, then why do you think writing a novel should not be covered under property? If you created something with your mind, it is yours just the same as if you create it from raw materials with your hands. Rights cover more than just the physical, you own your own mind just as much as you own your body. And in an extension to that, because human beings need to pursue and gain values in order to live, the products of your body (labor I mean here) are yours by right as well.

I think possibly you're thinking of property too literally? What do you think is fundamentally different about intellectual property (like copyright) that makes it unownable?

I think once you accept that you do own the products of your mind, this dilemma vanishes. It doesn't make sense for more than one person to own a piece of intellectual property (you can have joint ownership, but I mean in the sense of two competing claims), any more than multiple people can properly lay claims on a house.

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"If you created something with your mind, it is yours just the same as if you create it from raw materials with your hands."

But you're not including a book which is very similar to one which already exists. Why does this book not get included? It was created by someone's mind.

I think patents work because a patent doesn't exclude someone from making a new invention. Copyrights seem to me to be an attack on the mind, because they limit the ideas people can come up with and distribute (similar ideas). Once you recognize a copyright, you're stopping people from creating/distributing similar ideas. With patents, there's nothing preventing someone from coming up with a very similar invention.

I'll also add that I don't think the cure for cancer + a little sugar counts as a patent, because the sugar isn't a part of creating anything new--it doesn't cure cancer and it's already been discovered/invented. With books/stories any small change fundamentally changes the whole thing. If, for example, Atlas Shrugged is given a few additional scenes, what the book does has been changed--it's telling you a story and the story is now different. This means that any book/story is an intellectual creation by whomever came up with the particular version in question, and once you recognize this, the idea of excluding people from creating unique ideas which are similar to yours breaks down.

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You're looking at it backwards, though. Whether or not someone else can claim copyright to something already copyrighted is a completely secondary issue, and doesn't really matter when we're trying to answer the question: why is copyright proper? Same with patents for that matter, whether or not patents stifle innovation or not is NOT the fundamental question that matters. Patents are right because they are a product of a man's mind and he should have ownership of those things he produces.

Do you agree up to that point?

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Whether or not someone else can claim copyright to something already copyrighted is a completely secondary issue.

I'm not asking about that.

whether or not patents stifle innovation or not is NOT the fundamental question that matters.

I'm not asking about that.

Patents are right because they are a product of a man's mind and he should have ownership of those things he produces.

Do you agree up to that point?

Yes (as long as it's temporary, maybe 5 to 20 years).

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Okay, so if I write a book and have copyright on it (the work is mine), then doesn't it follow that if you copy the thing and change a few words, that you cannot also claim (what is essentially) the same work? If you claimed copyright on the slightly different version, wouldn't you be claiming ownership of MY work in large part? How is that not theft?

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I don't know why I have to tell you this again: I'm currently opposed to copyrights. I am NOT advocating a new type of copyright.

What I'm saying is that if copyrights are justified on the grounds that people get control of their ideas, then this must apply to ALL new ideas, even if they are very similar to other ideas. I don't see how a book which is similar to another is a "new idea", but if it's very similar, then it isn't. Simply re-writing 4 pages of a 400 page book can make the story significantly different.

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I don't know why I have to tell you this again: I'm currently opposed to copyrights. I am NOT advocating a new type of copyright.

What I'm saying is that if copyrights are justified on the grounds that people get control of their ideas, then this must apply to ALL new ideas, even if they are very similar to other ideas. I don't see how a book which is similar to another is a "new idea", but if it's very similar, then it isn't. Simply re-writing 4 pages of a 400 page book can make the story significantly different.

Do you believe that a man owns himself, by right, that his mind and his body is his?

Doesn't that extend to the products he produces, as well? What value would someone's labor have if they had no claim to what they produced?

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Do you believe that a man owns himself, by right, that his mind and his body is his?

Yes.

Doesn't that extend to the products he produces, as well?

Only if the ownership doesn't prevent others from owning their products. In other words, with patents and land, I'm not preventing someone from owning another patent or another piece land. However, because it's easy to make changes to a book/song, then the only way a copyright can have the effect of property ownership is if it applies to other ideas as well.

In other words, I think people should only own property that doesn't prevent others from owning different products.

What value would someone's labor have if they had no claim to what they produced?

Just because I'm opposed to some products being property doesn't mean I'm opposed to all products being property.

Furthermore, we can already agree that there are some very original ideas that shouldn't be property (like the phrase "for shizzle dizzle", a very unique drawing, a fashion style, etc), even though we might think people have a moral right to owning it.

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And whether or not you can copyright your new book or song depends on whether you actually created it; i.e. it has to be the product of your thought. So you're right, one person having copyright doesn't prevent anyone else from having copyright on a completely different work. However, you keep saying "new work" when you really mean "something that is only slightly different, but mostly someone else's old work".

You should be able to claim the new parts as yours, but not the old that are already someone else's words/ideas written down. Let's use a rather extreme example to illustrate this: would it be okay for someone to, say, copy the entirety of Atlas Shrugged word for word, give it a different title, and publish it as their work? If not, why shouldn't they be able to? Isn't it their work?

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you keep saying "new work" when you really mean "something that is only slightly different, but mostly someone else's old work".

How is a work slightly different from another not a new work? How is it not the product of a person's mind?

would it be okay for someone to, say, copy the entirety of Atlas Shrugged word for word, give it a different title, and publish it as their work?

Sure. Why not?

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So you see no moral problem with taking credit for someone else's work and pretending you were the one who did it?

That's not what we're talking about.

First, Atlas Shrugged is a bad example because it's been around for a long time. Also, if I make an exact copy of Atlas Strugged and put my name on it (in the place of Rand) and distribute it, that doesn't necessarily mean I'm literally claiming her work. And if I actually did, no one would believe me.

What you appear to be talking about--taking someone else's work and passing it off as your own--doesn't necessarily entail a property rights violation. If you either stole some of their (physical) property with the information in question, or you obtained it by invading their privacy (perhaps you snooped a digital copy on their computer), that's one thing. But let's say someone reads you a story, and you're able to memorize it, and then you go off and tell people you did. Is it immoral? Sure, but it shouldn't be illegal.

What I'm asking is how copyrights can be justified if they entail preventing people from distributing similar ideas they came up with. If someone writes a book and I make changes to it, those changes are a product of my mine.

You can say most of the work was done by the other person, but

(1) it doesn't change the fact that the new version is a product of my mind

and

(2) what about inventions that are only somewhat different derivations on a hugely innovative invention? Clearly, most of the work was done by the person who made the very innovative invention, and you've just figured out a few tweaks that still yields an invention (because it can do something that no other invention pulled off). O-ists support patenting this. So why should someone get a property right that prevents people from doing the same thing and distributing the use of that idea (copyrights)? If I make a few changes to a book, most of the work was obviously done by the author of the original, but it's still a new book--it's different from beginning to end, and that's a product of my mind.

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