My Own Intellectual Property Story

I've been maintaining this page for a few months now, motivated by a strong conviction that our institutions of intellectual property give far too many rights to IP owners. I put a lot of time into keeping the page up-to-date, doing searches and following hunches on where I might find relevant stories.

On September 4th, while doing that work, I came across a small site called "Have Copyrights Gone Too Far", run by "Munch", the maintainer of the shut-down Simpson's Source. The site included a page listing online cases of sites "in hot water with corporate America". The page listed all but five or six of the links on my page, and no new ones. It even included really obscure border-line cases like the McDonnel Douglas Usenet post and the David Lowry homepage- a fake fan page for a fictional celebrity that includes an imaginary legal threat. The order was a little different from what I had on my page, but still close to the largely random ordering I have here, reflecting when I happened to find out about each case. There were different summaries for each case, but it was clear that Munch had grabbed my links, the results of many hours of work spread out over months, and built a new page around them.

I was angry that my work had been taken. Worse, I was frustrated by imagined conversations where I was accused of hypocrisy for complaining about it- after all my implicit railing against intellectual property, I was now the IP owner whining that I'd been ripped off. I could try and dodge the accusation by pointing out that what happened to me wasn't a violation of intellectual property laws (which are about protecting peoples' rights to profit from monopolies on ideas), but of plagiarism norms (which are about ensuring that people receive proper credit for the work they do). I do believe that the two are very different, and that plagiarism norms do a lot less to keep people and ideas apart from each other. But still, there was something really uncomfortable about the friction between my belief that information should be used freely and my feelings about being ripped off.

That discomfort remains, though I'm still as convinced as ever that intellectual property laws do more harm than good. Since copyright laws protect the expression of ideas rather than ideas themselves, what Munch did wasn't illegal. And I don't think it should be. But it did make me feel lousy. I've sent him a polite email asking that he link to my page and cite it as a source.

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