Life, Toons, and Politics

{June 8, 2010}   Hey, Rush: Sharing ‘Intellectual Property’ Isn’t ‘Stealing’

Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul of Kentucky has recently come under fire for his use of a Canadian rock band’s songs in his political campaign, both at rallies and in campaign videos. Apparently, Rush doesn’t want Dr. Paul using their music for political purposes. The Louisville-Courier Journal reports:

In Web ads and at campaign appearances, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul sometimes has called on the music of the band Rush to give his message a little pop.

It turns out the campaign wasn’t using the music with the band’s permission, according to Rush’s attorney, Robert Farmer.

Farmer, general counsel for the Anthem Entertainment Group Inc. in Toronto, which is Rush’s record label, has sent a letter to Paul campaign officials informing them that they have violated copyright laws — and urging them to stop. “This is not a political issue — this is a copyright issue,” Farmer said in an interview. “We would do this no matter who it is.”

Rush believes in upholding copyright laws. That’s understandable. This has nothing to do with Paul’s political beliefs. In fact, Rush’s works are known to have libertarian inclinations. Neil Hart, the band’s lyricist and drummer, is a devoted disciple of the late Ayn Rand, a writer known for her promotion of individualism and free markets.

But is sharing “intellectual property” equivalent to theft?

The law says, yes. Modern copyright laws protect the creative works of artists, musicians, writers, and other owners of “intellectual property” from copyright infringement. Works protected by copyright laws can’t be used for non-private purposes without permission from the copyright owner. These laws are permissibly enforceable under the U.S. Constitution.

Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, however, found error in the concept of legally protected “intellectual property.”

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

“Intellectual property” isn’t tangible. An idea is the exclusive right of an individual, so long as he keeps it to himself – but once he shares it, he has relinquished his exclusive right to it. That doesn’t mean the idea isn’t his, per se, but rather, that his willingness to share that idea with others places it in the public domain. Once people absorb the ideas of others, spreading it becomes inevitable. Every idea is at least partially inspired by other ideas. In fact, much of Rush’s music was inspired by the works of Ayn Rand.

Furthermore, it is not possible to steal an idea. It can only be shared. If I take someone’s idea and share it, I haven’t stolen anything. The idea I shared is still ingrained in the mind of the person who conceived it. I have not stolen it. When that person shared his idea, he ingrained the idea in my mind, and there is no way I can prevent myself from sharing that idea, with or without deliberation, because ideas seep into the subconscious once absorbed. I have not taken away his ability to hold the idea in his mind and share it with others. Every word spoken is an idea. As long as humans absorb ideas against their will – and as long as ideas are intangible – ideas cannot, in any conceivable way, be considered property.

Not all ideas are protected as “property” under the law. Leaders pick and choose which ideas are considered “property” and enforce the laws accordingly. This is a dangerous power that can be abused.

The concept of “intellectual property” is abstract in and of itself. Personally, debating it gives me a headache. How do you argue that some ideas are property and others aren’t?

Copying a CD and playing it in public is not the same as stealing it. The video below illustrates the difference.

Case closed. Copying is not theft. Playing music that was voluntarily shared with the public is nothing like stealing. If I took Rush’s records and physically stole them, that’s theft. But if I copy and play Rush’s music, I haven’t stolen anything.

Shame on Rush for harassing poor Dr. Paul.


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