Johannes Gutenberg introduced Europe to the printing press in the middle of the 15th Century, finally allowing man to disseminate ideas on a vast scale. The printing press became instrumental in the spread of enlightenment throughout Europe, educating the common man and ushering in the early modern period. While the printing press allowed the rapid spread of revolutionary concepts such as the Protestant Reformation, the abolitionist movement, and women’s rights, it also demonstrated a glaring need to create laws to protect a person’s intellectual property. Patent laws. Copyright laws. Laws that state, “Thou shalt not steal another’s ideas, words or inventions.” Despite this need, it took another 250 years for the first copyright laws to be enacted.
The concept of justice requires that rights be both inalienable and ubiquitous. A truly ‘just’ society must equally and fairly protect all its members. It is a tall order, for it countermands that base nature of man to seek an unfair advantage over his neighbor. Despite having defined the key ingredients to a just society – murder is wrong, theft is wrong, lying is wrong, adultery is wrong, cheating is wrong – nearly 4,000 years ago, the even-handed administration of justice remains a constant battle pitting the criminal, the corrupt, and the rich and powerful, against the common man who simply wants a fair shake.
So what, exactly, is going on today that is so awful? Well, rapid advances in technology are outstripping the letter of the law. For instance, I own the copyright for what you are currently reading just as much as I own the shirt on my back. EVERY word we write is de facto copyrighted without need to lay claim to that copyright. Yet, governments and corporations around the globe are copying and storing our written word for their benefit without our permission, and without any legal repercussions whatsoever. Ethically, I own the copyright on my thoughts, habits, attitudes, preferences and the like. Until the beginning of the 21st Century there was really no need to address this in a legal sense for it was nearly impossible to track people on a mass scale and steal this information. Today, via cell-phone tracking, monitoring of internet use and purchasing habits, various retailer “rewards-type” programs, RFID chips, omnipresent video surveillance, and newly introduced body-recognition scanners based on Microsoft’s Kinect technology, governments and businesses around the globe are able to access, copy, utilize, and profit from the copyright of our lives. Buried in the End User Licensing Agreements (EULA), terms of service and privacy policies of virtually every piece of software and internet service we use, we agree to give away our souls in exchange for a mere pittance. We give Google our very essence for nothing, and they sell it for billions. Going even deeper, in a just society, we own our own selves – our blood and bones – and that means we own the patent and copyright to our own unique genetic code. Twenty years ago there was no technological way to steal it from us. Today, all it takes is a drop of our blood and our genetic make-up can be laid bare for all to see and use without our knowledge or permission.
This is not a reality we have to accept. I do not use Facebook because I do not agree to their amorphous, ever-changing terms of service. I rarely use Google. I try to seek out those companies who respect my privacy, and try to shun those who profit by thieving the copyright of my life. If that means I choose a service that costs me a few dollars a year over the “free” service, I do not complain, for in reality, nothing is free. We all pay, one way or another. Finally, since “free market” solutions can only take me so far, I also voice my concerns with my elected representatives, in hopes they see the virtue in a just society and act accordingly. Pushing back is a lot easier than you think. We do not have to be sheep. Willful violations of federal copyright law can result in up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine per offense. We are not required to give up our 4th Amendment rights, our international copyright rights, nor our right to self-ownership simply because we want to participate in today’s world. Can you imagine the US Postal Service, or FedEx, or UPS only delivering your goods and correspondences if you agreed to allow them to make a digital copy of the contents first? You would be outraged! That is exactly what is happening with all of our electronic activities. ALL OF THEM. Phone calls, texts, e-mails, search engines, purchases. It is time to get outraged.