"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 16 May 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
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Intellectual property rights seem a quaint notion these days — the antiquated, Elizabethan remains of the Old Economy with all the here-and-now applicability of lace collars. Intellectual property is a fairy tale, told by dot-commers to make their interns laugh, like stories of stockholders who expect a profit and journalists who check their sources. The idea of owning what you create has become a sad little joke.

Take, for instance, the strange case of William W. Fisher, III, a Harvard law professor whose specialties include "Intellectual-Property Law; and the Law of the Internet" — mutually exclusive ideas, near as we can tell. In a fit of self-obliviousness so intense that we can't help but wonder how he remembers to don his pants in the morning, Professor Fisher decided to help himself to Suck's recent "Project Zapster" parody — without permission, notice or a courtly by-your-leave.

People who steal from Suck deserve what they get — this site has long been the lonely "Free Stuff" box in the corner of the Internet yard sale. But we can't help wondering what message Professor Fisher's wanton neglect for the niceties of copyright law sends to the sons and daughters of the meritocracy. When a teacher who apparently knows a thing or two about sticky property issues takes such a post-legal approach to ownership, well, how are the rest of us supposed to know any better? The fact that even a scholar of Professor Fisher's standing would engage in a little five-fingered republishing speaks legal volumes about the state of intellectual property rights on the Internet today and the laughable disregard in which they are held.



Napster fans, despite some recent setbacks, are laughing harder than anybody. Given the reception the company's representatives got at last Thursday night's Shlainerrific Webby Awards ceremony — thunderous cheers drowning out one lone party-pooper shouting "Yea, piracy! Woo hoo! Yeah!" — the ability to download copyrighted music free of charge is widely considered a freedom built into the Internet. And though Napster has recently acceded to Metallica's demands and bumped over 300,000 users from the system — futilely, it appears — we can't help but think that thievery, like love, will always find a way. Aside from finally providing definitive proof that the Internet consists of more than the same eight people, all hiding behind hundreds of aliases, Metallica has accomplished little more than doing enormous damage to its decades-honed reputation. They've fought the good fight in defending their intellectual property rights, but have only managed to earn themselves mockery and derision as a result. You can't put the genie back in the bottle, no matter how big a reprobate he turns out to be.

The casual disregard for who owns what doesn't stop at music. Jon Katz, long an enthusiastic defender of reprobates, has managed to run afoul of those pesky intellectual property issues, too. In his latest opus, "Voices from the Hellmouth," Katz reprints the high-strung series of stories he wrote in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre, along with various tales of high-school beat-downs added by Slashdot readers. Only he didn't bother to get his co-authors' permission before including their text. This created a ruckus on the perpetually ruckus-suffering Slashdot (which explicitly leaves all rights to every message with its author), and led hundreds of Metallica pirates to become incensed that their rights could be so dismissively violated. One can only hope that everyone with his or her panties in a twist over being ripped off by Katz has "Enter Sandman" on the old dorm-room hard drive.

Minus the benefit of Napster's lawyers — and the potential "mere conduit"-hood provided by their Terms of Service — Katz feebly defended his fully illegal appropriation by citing a convenient moral imperative. "The Hellmouth posts are unique," he justifies. "They belong in the public domain. In fact, they cry out to be there." One can only wonder if Katz's aversion to intellectual property rights might change if someone were to start redistributing his other new book, Geeks, citing their own moral enthusiasms.



Richard M. Stallman — the street-corner preacher of the free software movement — is packed with moral enthusiasms of his own. He firmly believes in intellectual property rights, as long as they're his own. Stallman will merrily enforce his own copyright (via the GNU Public License), then just as merrily deride the music industry for trying to do the same. "What hypocritical absurdity!" he adds, though apparently not in reference to himself.

And, of course, Suck — never one to be left out when there are charges of hypocrisy floating around — manages to violate a handful of copyrights every Thursday, when we reprint graphics from each site targeted by a Hit & Run. We'll tell you that we're tip-toeing along the inside of fair-use, of course, and doing the victim some good by driving traffic, to boot. But on the laborious business of obtaining permissions, we've always used the tactic of waiting until somebody complains (and five years in, we're still waiting). There goes our credibility.



So maybe Professor Fisher can be forgiven if he gets a little confused every once in a while and ends up stealing from doe-eyed innocents like Suck. Intellectual property issues can be painful and difficult; and if people come to the Internet for anything, it's to avoid both pain and difficulty. Can you really begrudge some head-banger for getting his Metallica fix for free? Can you blame Katz for taking what would have been awfully inconvenient to ask for? Can you fault Stallman for wanting to be the iconic rebel both ways?

Hell, yeah. The near-universal disregard with which intellectual property is treated leaves anyone with even the slightest interest in their own rights thinking that the population of the Internet consists almost entirely of beady-eyed, slack-jawed warezd00dz. But moralizing never got anybody anywhere, save nailed to a tree. And since piracy is going to continue no matter what the courts or copyright-holders do, Metallica and the AP and anybody else with complaints about the state of intellectual property rights on the Web is going to have to do some hard thinking fast.

First one with a business plan wins.

courtesy of Greg Knauss
picturesTerry Colon

Greg Knauss