In Article 8, Section 1 of the United States constitution, we find the powers enumerated by Congress. The eighth item in this list is as follows:
"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;"
Isn't it interesting that well before the Bill of Rights, right in the very CORE of the Constitution we find the doctrine of copyright? Every writer knows about the First Amendment, but how many know about Article 8, Item 8? The very concept of copyright is up front and center in our nation's founding. Yankee ingenuity is, in effect, mandated by the law of the land. This is tremendously exciting, and sobering, at the same time.
America isn't the only nation with copyright (and patent) laws, and our current implementation of same isn't necessarily the best on the planet. There are features of German patent law, for instance, that are a little more beneficial to the patentee. However, the U.S. constitution is the ONLY constitution that incorporates copyright and patent right up front and center, not as an afterthought or amendment. Our nation was founded by writers and doodlers, and it shows.
As with all the rest of our Constitution, this item is remarkably terse and skeletal. It allows great latitude in working out the details by men and women of common sense, while making the main DOCTRINE solid and inviolable.
Now, people can certainly create without copyright. I am a member of the Free Software Foundation, and I give away a lot of free software, just because it's a lot of fun, as do many others of my ilk. But we all have day jobs. And for most of us, our day jobs are nowhere near as interesting as creating really cool free software, which is why we are compelled to do the cool stuff even with no expectation of financial reward.
The intent of copyright and patent law as envisioned by our founding fathers was not to make writers and inventors filthy rich (nor our progeny)...it was to allow us to be able to quit our day jobs. This is all any truly creative person wants. Havinig a secure and sacrosanct copyright and patent allows writers to be writers and doodlers to be doodlers. It allows creators to reap the just rewards of their efforts, by securing for them an absolute MONOPOLY (not a four-letter word, by the way) for a limited time.
Again, the definition of "limited time" was left up to our discretion. (I think Ben Franklin would be spinning in his grave at the concept of the Copyright Term Extension Act, however).
Now, as with any contract, the Constitutional idea of Copyright is a two-edged sword. Congress can prevent people from STEALING our stuff, but, on the other hand, it can't make anyone BUY it. The Declaration of Independence suggests we have every right to the PURSUIT of happiness...it doesn't say anything about actually GETTING it. There's a big difference. A sound copyright law allows us to pursue happiness, which is generally synonymous with being able to quit one's day job.
And here is where our responsibility as creators comes in. The text in question says," .......and useful Arts." Again, the definition of useful was left open. However, to steal from modern day sentiments, "We can't define it, but we know it when we see it." Gild the lily any way we want, but we know when what we write is useful or when it's not. And this usefulness has nothing to do with the form of the literature or art we produce. A work of absolute fiction that inspires and motivates is useful. A poem or a painting that expands one's intellectual or spiritual horizons is useful. A work of non-fiction, no matter how factual, that simply regurgitates historical wrongdoings, or is a mouthpiece for the writer's pet prejudices is not. Well, perhaps in a perverse way, this sort of literature can be useful as a bad example.
We do know one thing. As terse as the Constitution is, the framers would not have inserted the term useful just to use up extra parchment space.
So, that is our sole responsibility as creators, in exchange for our private, limited-term monopoly. To produce something useful. It's really not a whole lot to ask.
Causes Eric Nichols Supports
Free Burma Rangers, Partners Ministries (Thailand), Literacy council of Alaska, Access Alaska.