by Yule Heibel on January 6, 2005

Bill Gates was asked what he thought of advocates for copyright reform. It appears he likens them to communists:

There are some new modern-day sort of communists who want to get rid of the incentive for musicians and moviemakers and software makers under various guises. [More…]

Oh my. Could that big house of Bill’s be emitting radon, eating his braincells? Is the feng shui not conducive to intellectual openness? Or is it just an extension of monopoly thinking?

In Massive Change, pp.92-93, Larry Lessig answers the question, “What are the roots of intellectual copyright law?” with a short history lesson:

People have an understandable view that the idea of copyright has been around for 200 years and that it has never changed. And so, when you see this explosion of peer-to-peer file sharing — which is said to violate copyright laws — most people’s natural response is to say, “Let’s stop the theft.” But in fact, there’s a long tradition to consider. There was once a powerful group in England called the Congor [sic]. They were a monopolist group that restricted the spread of knowledge by keeping prices of books high. Then along came the Statute of Anne, which was designed to promote education and learning by limiting copyright to 14 years. Its effect was basically to tell the Congor [sic] that their government-granted monopolies would be over, and they would have to compete in the marketplace if they wanted to continue to prosper. As a result of its implementation, for the first time in English history, the works of Shakespeare, for example, were no longer under the control of monopoly publishers. Works became free and the tradition of free culture was really born. [Online source here]

A little further down, Lessig relates how Walt Disney’s work built on work that was in the public domain. For example, he took the stories recorded by the Brothers Grimm and “retold them in a warm and fuzzy way…” [p.93]:

He was free to take those stories and retell them in the way that he did because the Grimm fairy tales had passed into the public domain. This was Walt Disney’s technique — and it’s been the technique of the Disney Corporation all the way to the present. Because Disney has been so successful in extending the terms of copyright, nobody can do to Walt Disney what Walt Disney did to the Brothers Grimm. Nobody can build on top of Disney’s work in the way that Disney built on top of other peoples’ [sic] work. And that change in the basic bargain of copyright is what I think has been most destructive to the way in which free culture has evolved. Free culture has always depended upon the Walt Disneys of the world having the freedom to build without seeking permission upon our past. That freedom has now been removed by lobbyists, who convince Congress that a better way to have a culture is to require that you first get permission from corporate owners. [Online source here]

That puts the matter quite succinctly, doesn’t it? As for “communism”? Lessig’s closing comment, describing his thoughts on the future:

My hope is that we get a much wider range of adopters to this model [Creative Commons, eg.], so that the extremism of All Rights Reserved, which was Hollywood’s vision — versus No Rights Reserved, which is the kind of anarchist’s vision and is no longer what defines the debate — is replaced by something more moderate, something that enables artists to build and share content, but also compensates them for their creativity. [Online source here]

On his blog, Lessig today briefly comments on Bill Gates’s remark, with an entry titled what a total (intellectual) disappointment this man is.

Poor [sic] Bill, must be bad feng shui, for sure.


Kate S. January 8, 2005 at 3:13 pm

Gates has really turned into a … I want to say megalomaniac but he still looks so little and cuddly on the front. I read a brief abstract recently where he (his corporation) was threatening China, if they didn’t solely use his product — they would be “very sorry.” I thought that was kind of telling in regards to his monopolistic mindset.

I wonder what Shakespeare would think about all this, considering he “borrowed” most of his ideas from earlier writers, redressing them up in rhyming meter.

Yule Heibel January 10, 2005 at 8:32 pm

There’s an interesting comment thread on Dan Gillmor‘s blog re. Gates’s remark and Winer’s (at first blush) defense (but W. being W., he denies it was a defense…) of Gates’s remark. Take a look. And it’s fascinating how many people do take Gates’s side — scary, actually.

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