[permaculture] Copyright

Toby Hemenway hemenway at jeffnet.org
Thu Mar 28 17:32:46 EST 2002

 jeff at jko at save-net.com wrote:

> I wrote something on homesteading
> once and later found it copyrighted with added paragraphs promoting
> a religious belief.  This was fine if they identified which parts were
> free and only copyrighted the parts they added.

What they did was illegal; you were indeed protected against this, since
your writing was automatically copyrighted when you wrote it. I suppose--tho
I'm not a lawyer--that you could append to your writing a statement that it
can be freely distributed but altered only with proper attribution (tho the
latter is already protected unless you disclaim it, I believe). But the
point is, the restrictions are best set by the author, not the user, or this
sort of abuse results.

> the answer might be free information and pay-for services.

This is a promising line of thought, but remember that for every written
word, some poor schmoe slaved over a pen or keyboard to produce it. Thus
there is service involved in generating any original written information,
though very little in copying it. Sometimes I give my writing away (like
now, and it's worth every penny!), and sometimes, since it's my principal
livelihood, I expect to be paid for the time I put into it.

For example, most of the facts (information) in my book, "Gaia's Garden" are
not original with me, but I spent (arghh) 3 years producing it, and the
wording is my own. So (as kind reviewers have said), useful information
about North American permaculture is now all in one place, when it formerly
took a lot of hunting for, and you had to know which people to ask. If
someone else wants to spend countless hours collecting this information,
nothing prevents them, but if they value their time and want to find it
quickly in my book, I would like them to pay for the service I've done (so I
can pay off my debts from those 3 years, arghh again). If I don't break even
on the project, I won't write another book--and that will be a crushing loss
for society that will probably destroy our civilization. Or not. But
economic return is a useful feedback mechanism; in this case illegal copying
distorts feedback to me about whether my book is useful.

> Within economic just about everything is owned.

It's enlightening to read John Locke and some of the others who worked out a
lot of the ideas around property. They were trying to solve a set of
problems centering, in part, on abuse of common land and a withdrawal of
resources from the commons that was exacerbating poverty, and settled on
property as a good solution (a gross oversimplification; sorry). They
concluded that property was in general constructive, and that labor was what
gave things value, and thus labor should give ownership. There is vastly
less labor in copying, linking to web sites, etc than in creation, so under
our system ability to copy does not confer ownership. To have art,
literature, data, and music to copy, we have to support those who produce

I have a whole raft of anecdotes and experiences that show that ownership is
still a good (not perfect) solution to insuring that goods and land are
taken care of (e.g., Jeff's writing seemed to have no owner and was
subsequently stolen and altered; but if he chooses, the law lets him take
action to stop this).

> Some other ownership issues are: DNA, seeds, water, air, and plants.

One solution is to allow ownership in proportion to the amount of the
substance affected by your labor or created by you. Change one gene of an
heirloom seed, you own the changed portion of the gene (a few base pairs out
of billions). Not the whole gene, or other genes selected by countless
generations of farmers, and not the seed coat, endosperm, or the resulting
plant or seeds. Thus, not the water, just the bottle, pipe, or labor used to
transport it.

A lot of ownership problems evaporate if we think in terms of the services
provided by the object, not the object itself. I want the ability to chill
food, not ownership of the damn refrigerator (thus leaving disposal to
Westinghouse); I want to eat food, not own the seeds. Licensing, then, not
ownership. So maybe a low fee if you want to read my book, a higher one for
copying, and higher still if you want to incorporate it verbatim into your
own work.

Sorry for the length; must be a windy day.


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