24 February 2006

IP and Public Consciousness

At one level, this is pretty funny (via BoingBoing) - The Mozilla Foundation has problems explaining to Trading Standards that they can't prosecute someone for selling Firefox on CD. Trading Standards are flabberghasted. The trading standards officer has the job of telling people that software can't exist without protection from copying, so the fact that a well-known widely-used piece of software has no such protection produces cognitive dissonance.

There's a serious point though. Our views about what is right and wrong are not logically derived from self-evident first principles (well, except in my case, obviously). Neither, these days, are they unquestioningly accepted from Authority. Instead they are absorbed from the surrounding culture.

That is the problem. The copyright industry have won widespread background acceptance, not only of their legal privileges, but of a view of intellectual property that is actually far more extensive than has ever existed in law - the view implied by misleading metaphors like "piracy" and "copyright theft". In this cultural environment, even the existence of Free Software looks like something a little dodgy, and extending the scope of IP law looks like "plugging loopholes".

They have done this with a deliberate campaign of propoganda, aimed not least at children and schools.

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/11/17/graun_piracy_lessons/
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4055753.stm
http://economics.about.com/cs/mp3svsriaa/a/ip_education.htm
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/08/05/uk_school_copyright_lessons/

This urgently needs to be combated. Not head on; we cannot go into schools to tell children it's OK to infringe copyright, and I don't wish to. But the other side of the story has to be put forward as well - the benefits of fair use, the importance of the public domain, and the idea that it is a good and generous thing to write software (or music, or literature) and allow others to use and copy it freely. In a world where young children come home from school spouting the most naive ideas about environmentalism, and wearing wristbands advocating funding foreign despots, surely that's not too much to ask.

We need an "information pack" for 8-16 year-olds, to give to schools, explaining what Free Software is, how it is produced, how widely it is used, and how it benefits everybody. We need to actually get it into schools, and include it in Linux distributions. If anyone has heard of such a thing, please let me know, otherwise it's time to start the ball rolling.

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