The Grail Code 
Intellectual property gone mad

I usually stay out of politics on line, because I think it distracts from the messages I consider more important. You don’t have to know whether I’m a Republican or a Democrat—or Labour or Tory or Lib Dem, or Progressive Conservative or Regressive Liberal, or whatever the parties are in your part of the world. You can just assume that I agree with everything you believe, and you don’t have to know that I always vote straight Bull Moose. (Anyway, that’s a lie. I don’t have many opportunities to vote Bull Moose, and when I have them I don’t take them. It is literally true that a candidate for city council in my rather colorful district ran on the Bull Moose ticket a few years ago, but I didn’t vote for him. That’s as much of my voting record as I care to divulge right now.)

But once in a while I do take a stand on issues I consider both important and relevant. For example, I came out against throwing bloggers in jail, on the important and relevant grounds that I am a blogger and don’t want to go to jail. There, in a nutshell, are my criteria for importance and relevance: namely, blatant self-interest.

Now it’s time to talk about another area that engages my blatant self-interest: intellectual property. In this area I admit that my views are on the wacky radical side. I believe that the purpose of copyright and patent law is not to build up dynasties of intellectual-property billionaires, but to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries. Since I’m an unreliable radical, however, let’s see what powers the founders of the United States of America gave Congress in this area. Let’s see—here it is: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Well, what do you know.

Remember those words as I tell you that the government of Egypt is moving to “copyright” Egypt’s ancient monuments.

Egypt’s MPs [the BBC tells us] are expected to pass a law requiring royalties be paid whenever copies are made of museum pieces or ancient monuments such as the pyramids.

Zahi Hawass, who chairs Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told the BBC the law would apply in all countries.

The money was needed to maintain thousands of pharaonic sites, he said.

Correspondents say the law will deal a blow to themed resorts across the world where large-scale copies of Egyptian artefacts are a crowd-puller.

Now, I’ve never met Dr. Zahi Hawass, but he’s one of my heroes. He combines scientific rigor and vast learning with a theatrical flair that succeeds in conveying the excitement of history and archaeology. He has his own fan club. How many archaeologists can say that? It’s true that he’s made a lot of enemies, but that seems to be mostly because he doesn’t have much patience for people whose standards don’t meet his own. The people who think Martians built the pyramids positively hate Dr. Hawass, and I’m sure that’s fine by him.

I’ve given Dr. Hawass such a big buildup because I’m disagreeing with him here, and I want to make it clear that I don’t ordinarily take it upon myself to disagree with someone who’s both an august authority and an international media phenomenon. One or the other, but usually not both.

But the precedent for copyright laws, and intellectual property in general, is very bad if people take this Egyptian initiative seriously. Works of art, literature, and architecture should belong exclusively to their creators for limited times, because artists, writers, and architects have to make a living somehow. From society’s or government’s point of view, the purpose of such exclusive copyrights is to encourage the growth of art and literature.

But that exclusivity can’t and doesn’t need to be indefinite. After a certain time, the original creator is dead, and the exclusive copyright can’t possibly encourage him to create anything more. Works of lasting value become part of our heritage. All art progresses by learning from the works that have come before. Every great artist, at least until the past few generations, learned to paint by copying the works of old masters. The plots of Shakespeare’s plays are taken almost entirely from older sources, to be transformed by his genius into things far greater than the originals.

There are no monuments more ancient than the monuments of Egypt. If those are to be “copyrighted,” then there is no time limit at all on copyright. If people who did not build the Pyramids can, thousands of years after they were built, begin to demand a fee for representations of them, then there is no more culture. Anyone with enough power and chutzpah can take any human accomplishment out of the domain of shared human heritage and demand royalties for it. Artists can no longer paint views of ancient ruins; calligraphers can no longer copy the inscription on Trajan’s column; architects can no longer use elements of ancient monuments in new and unusual ways; poets and novelists can no longer re-imagine Homer; hacks like me can no longer bring the literary wealth of the Middle Ages to a new audience. My wife wouldn’t even have the rights to her high-school graduation photos, since she went to high school in Cairo and graduated in front of the Pyramids. Culture, in short, grinds to a halt, because culture grows by building on the great accomplishments of our ancestors.

Fortunately, as justifiably high as Dr. Hawass’ opinion of himself is, he can’t really make a law that “applies in all countries.” There are reciprocal treaties that govern intellectual property, to be sure, but the United States, for one, cannot make a treaty that abrogates its own constitution. I am not a constitutional scholar, but the words “for limited times” must have some meaning, and if the Pyramids can be under copyright in the United States then there is no limit. I don’t think our Supreme Court would allow any copyright claims to be enforced in such obvious violation of the letter of the Constitution. But then I’ve disagreed with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution before, and where has it got me? I’m keeping an eye on this issue.

3 Responses to “Intellectual property gone mad”

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