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Doug Leary
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 0Posted on Sep 19th, 2012 | re: David Lowery Blasts NPR Intern On File-Sharing (201 comments)

A little late to the party, but I want to fill in a few gaps in Lowry’s perspective.

The so-called “Free Culture movement” isn’t a movement, it’s just the way things were for thousands of years. Another term for it is “the spread of civilization.” It used to be that when people saw a new idea – a method of irrigation, a medical procedure, an engineering technique or whatever, they simply copied it. A minstrel would memorize a song he heard in a tavern, and then go perform it in the next town. No royalties, no infringement, no immorality. This was normal human behavior that was perfectly acceptable until copyright law came along.

Copyright is a very practical idea that restricts competition in a limited way in order to make copy-making profitable. But it doesn’t define morality; it just makes certain kinds of business more convenient. Lowry has no problem with the government doing that, but he tells Emily White that it’s not the government’s place to make things convenient for her.

Lowry makes a usually-overlooked point about the law mandating download royalties for songwriters. But this is just a specific feature of modern law. If we’re going to talk about ethics, it seems valid to wonder why only songwriters are guaranteed this royalty and musicians aren’t. Maybe ethics loves songwriters better, or maybe legislators do.

My point is that Lowry’s position rests entirely on the idea that our current laws and music industry practices represent some sort of fundamental human truth. This just doesn’t hold water. Ocean liners were a great idea, too, but then along came airliners. If the passenger ship industry had had the foresight to establish some kind of legal claim on the “right” to carry people back and forth across the ocean, part of every intercontinental airline ticket today would go to a shipping line, a licensing fee to use those travel rights. People flying small “pirate” planes across the ocean would be called immoral and unethical for not paying their tithe.

It’s time to stop protecting the way things were and adapt to the way things are.