Living in an Open Society

I recently had a conversation with a close friend about the topic of Intellectual Property, and in the course of the conversation, my ideas were thrown back at me, and I realized that I’ve been looking at the topic in the wrong light.

This event has been spinning through my mind since that day, and I’ve been working toward deciding where I stand with regards to piracy, giving things away for free, and being a creative person for a living.  Though there are so many shades of grey in this type of debate, I’d like to share my thoughts in a semi-organized fashion.




In today’s society, if you create for a living, you absolutely have to deal with the topic of piracy.  Some artists use it to their advantage–releasing their intellectual properties for free to the masses–while still selling their IP and memorabilia to devoted fans.

Sure, most of these artists are established, and more often than not have more money in the bank than I’ll ever see in my life.  I used to think that these people simply understood how the modern world worked, and they are using it to their advantage, while still being able to make a living.

But, when it was put to me that an artist who is just starting out, or struggling to get by, gets hit by the web’s “anything that’s digital is free” mentality, it causes a much larger impact.  Though I myself am an amateur creative person, for some reason my brain had not come to that conclusion in the past.  While my eyes weren’t opened in a clouds-parting revelation, this got me on the path to thinking about the core issues here, and what I can do to protect myself in the future.

An Open Society

Being a mass consumer of Science Fiction, I often think about the benefits of living in an open society where everyone creates for the good of the human (or other) race, regardless of self preservation.  Now while this is a beautiful idea, one that would fit well with evolutionary goals for the continued existence of the human race, it seems that this mentality is entirely impractical in today’s primarily Capitalist society.

The knowledge gained in these futuristic societies is shared by all, moving the human race to new-found heights on a day-to-day basis.  This mentality is shared by the bards, scientists and politicians alike, without regard to their social status, cost of living or the welfare of their families.  One creates for all, all share the benefits of said creation.

While it is true that just about any intellectual property that one would want in digital form is available for free on the internet through not-necessarily-altruistic means, does that mean that one should consume creative properties through those methods?  I’d venture to say yes, but no.

Entitlement and Rationalizations

With the advent of all of this modern technology, each of us is exposed to a vast amount of information coming from an infinite number of sources.  When one has this kind of power at their fingertips, it’s hard to break out of the habit of expecting everything to be free and constantly at your disposal.

Maybe some of us don’t make these excuses for gaining property without compensating the creator, but it seems a vast majority of people on the internet have fallen into the trap of entitlement.  This may not destroy entire industries run by large corporations, but it can potentially hurt the little businesses and individuals who rely on the income from these properties for their everyday living.

It’s easy to rationalize when faced with a tough decision.

I already purchased this album on CD, but I’ve since lost it, so I should be entitled to download a free copy from BitTorrent in mp3 format.

A lot of times, you can convince yourself or others that this is just as damaging as a white lie about how cute your friend’s baby is.  But truthfully, you are taking from the world’s collective knowledge, without giving something back in return.

The Big Guy and The Little Guy

The friend who turned my views upside down is a texture artist.  She creates game & design textures, and sells them on her own website in her all-too-little free time.  She is “The Little Guy” in this example.

“The Big Guy” on the other hand, is a large texture retailer, who sells textures at dirt cheap prices.  It is apparently very easy for The Big Guy to take The Little Guy’s hard work and turn it around and sell these high-quality textures for half as much, without compensating The Little Guy.  The Big Guy can get away with doing this as a business model, because he doesn’t put nearly as much time and effort into the work as The Little Guy originally did.

Yet another way to look at how the digital world can affect the honest hard-working citizen in a negative fashion.

I hadn’t thought of this type of situation before.  Instead of having millions of people on the internet downloading the textures, here we have someone who is actively benefiting from the monetary loss of an honest person.

This example isn’t meant to belittle the impact of piracy toward businesses when there is no gain involved, but simply serves as yet another way the idea of an open and Utopian society doesn’t fit with the current world’s system.

What Does This Mean to Me?

This was the immediate question that came to mind when I began contemplating these ideas.  Sure, I have a copyright notice on the sidebar here on Worthless Genius, but would that really stand up in a court of law?  Would I even be able to afford my own defense in order to bring an intellectual thief to justice?  Most likely not.

What is written on the internet inherently becomes public domain.  As it stands now, there is no way to defend oneself from the evil forces of the world when it comes to creative pursuits.  How is a creative person supposed to make a living, if all of their work is distributed across the world for free without their knowledge or consent?

Here is the point in the conversation where I use the three word phrase I’ve employed far too many times in my life: “I don’t know.”  The subject is such a touchy one, with both sides presenting enticing arguments, without any sort of middle ground.

I have turned a corner in the past few months, and I owe it in no small part to the original conversation.  I have actually begun finding the means to buy the software that I use on a daily basis.  I’ve purchased a multi-hundred dollar software suite from a major corporation, niche-filling software application from an individual, and even begun using an annual subscription service.

Suddenly, when I began this streak of altruism, something changed in my brain.  I realized that I was actually feeding back into the cycle of human knowledge and life.  And do you know how that felt? Good.

There had always been this strange feeling when using misappropriated software in the past, and I could never put my finger on the exact notion.  Once I started doing the right thing, that all changed, and in retrospect I was able to see exactly what it was: Guilt.

Once the rationalizations ceased, I was able to see that I may not have been an honest person, but since I’ve been working toward becoming an honest citizen, things have gotten better all around.  Not only in regards to the purchased software, and the removed hassle of dealing with cracks, viruses and the inability to do official updates; but also in my everyday life.

Call it Karma, call it what you will; it feels good.

So, as I go on to create and (hopefully) sell my creations, I will be thinking in a completely different manner than a few months prior.  I know I won’t see the world as a beautiful light-filled utopia with honest people.  But, I think it’s safe to say that I will appreciate those honest folks who do exist, and who do right by me in my endeavors.

Who have you compensated for their hard work lately?

  • Debbie Wiles

    Can I get an amen? amen! I went through the same process several years ago, with the same result – it felt Good. There is a difference between doing what is available to do, and doing what is ethical to do, isn’t there? Now, that being said, when I buy a song from a record company, it is mine and I expect to be able to play it on each and every one of my personally owned devices. Just as I can read the book I purchased in the livingroom, in the bedroom, or in the hotel room on vacation 1000 miles away from my home. The difference here is in being assumed a criminal by the vendor of the goods I wish to purchase. Bit torrent is not illegal. Don’t equate it with lock-picking tools!

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  • Cris Good

    Yes, it does feel good to know that you’ve come by it in an honest way. I too, used to try and get the freebies with the hacks and code cracks. I’d always get this eerie feeling of standing in a dark back alley in a seedy section of town, while looking over my shoulder…just hoping that “Ripper” would hurry up and pass me the goods so I could get stepping and leave unnoticed.
    I’m so glad I can just do my business on the up-and-up. My conscience is clear..I’m not stealing from the little guys …or the big guys anymore.

  • silven

    Free (as in price) can work too.

    I don’t use propriatary software. I haven’t since the turn of the century. I don’t like the idea, and I don’t like stealing either. So I vote with my feet.

    But that doesn’t mean that you have to be a free-loader to use free products. In the software world, I’ve helped port the linux kernel to the omap850 processor, and yesterday I cracked open the source code for the seamonkey (firefox) web browser because I was getting SIGBUS errors on my sparc workstation.

    When I program for a client, I charge ~$100/hr for my time. And I’ve invested alot of time in OSS over the years. Even something as small as filing a bug report or answering questions on a forum or IRC.

    If I look at it that way, I’ve probably “paid” in time thousands of dollars for the OSS that I use.

    It feels good to contribute back, but I ask myself. What is the best way to contribute to society? Is it lining the big software vendor’s pockets, and charging them with the responsibility of disbursing that money? Or getting my hands greasy in a metaphorical sense and getting something done.

    The answer isn’t clear cut, and I’m having a meeting today to discuss the use of non-free software in my business, and I think we’re going to use it.

    People have disassociated money and compensation.

    Big Head Todd and the Monsters, have their songs up on the website for free download. They are using that to help leverage their tours to get more people to see the shows since that’s more profitable for them than reccord sales. You can bet if they came here I would do everything to go.

    The compensation model of society is changing. There is a lot more service bartering and non-monetary compensation going on. I can’t see this changing in the near term.

    IMO the important thing is to be able to understand it, and live as intelligently as you can.

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