Monday, July 19, 2004

Copyright Feudalism

Imagine a feudal land, one in which land is held by a coalition of powerful lords and minor landholders. There are many other people under this system, peasants and serfs who are under the nobility. These people are unable to produce anything from the land without the permission of the nobility, and the nobility charges whatever prince they choose.

The land is recorded on deeds, but the deeds are held privately—they are kept by the owner of the land. The responsibility of defending those claims falls upon the property owners as well, which means they all maintain personal armies to defend their land. When someone attempts to work their land without their permission, they send soldiers to take everything they own, leaving them destitute.

There is land out there that nobody owns. Indeed, there is much land which is not presently in use, because it has either been farmed to the point where it was ruined, or it never had any immediate farming value in the first place. There have been peasants who have gone out to this unused—and often unowned—land, with either shovels to remove rocks, or piles of manure to re fertilize the land, and eke out a meager existence, free from the tyranny of the nobility.

The problem is that it is impossible to tell who owns the land. The deeds are held privately, and though there is usually a historical record as to who originally owned the land, one can never tell who currently owns it, if anybody. There have been many such serfs who, seeking freedom, went to what seemed to be unclaimed land, created a life there, only to be persecuted by soldiers of an owner who has neglected the land. As a result, nobody finds freedom on the free lands. Only the existing nobility can afford to even attempt to work the free land, because they have money enough to exploit it.

That's the way they like it; it binds the serfs to them very effectively, and ensures that nobody will ever emerge who can compete with them in the agricultural goods market.

Such a land exists. It is called the United States of America, except instead of land, it's ideas which I am discussing. Instead of a feudal nobility, it is the existing coalition of media corporations. Instead of serfs and peasants seeking the free lands, it is creators who, much like the founders of these corporations, seek to use historical materials (as Walt Disney did with Steamboat Bill Jr.) as a basis for their own cultural creations. Instead of privately held deeds, it is unregistered copyrights. Instead of the great mix of unowned and owned but unused lands, it is the great mass of images and sounds which might be used in everything from documentaries to music videos, but cannot because their copyright status cannot be determined except at great expense (or risked at even greater expense). Instead of soldiers, it is lawyers, both for destroying those who dare seek creative freedom, and determining what of the mix is part of the public domain.

Does anybody else see a problem here?

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