Wednesday, May 29, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Steal This Religion by Ian Dees


Steal This Religion
Ian Dees
Originally published in the November 2012 issue Empirical


Last Christmas, a new church was born. In December 2011, the Swedish Ministry of Finance officially recognized the Missionary Church of Kopimism, a religion whose core value is the free exchange of information–in other words, copying.



Kopimism takes its name from kopimi, a Swedish transliteration of the phrase “copy me.” The term was in use for a few years before the church came about. Its meaning is a sort of anti-license; if you attach a kopimi notice to a work of art, you are informing the viewer that not only is it their right to copy the work, it is their obligation. The Missionary Church of Kopimism takes this secular notion and blesses it as a fully religious precept.

Is Kopimism a legitimate religion? A work of performance art? A political statement? Or an end run around copyright law? As we’ll soon see, it’s a bit of all of these. It’s tempting to write off Kopimism as an attempt to justify copyright infringement. Society frowns on copying without asking, the argument goes; why not dress the act up in religious garb and make it seem more respectable?

This view is too charitable to plagiarists and casual downloaders. Someone who’s about to click a link to, say, a Guided By Voices song that “fell off the back of a truck” is thinking one of two things. Either downloading without paying is fine, morally speaking, or it’s wrong but they don’t care.

Actually, what’s most likely is that the downloader hasn’t considered the ethical question at all, and is just looking forward to hearing some of the world’s best indie rock. (Not that I’m biased.) The existence of a file-sharing religion has basically zero likelihood of influencing any given individual’s moral outlook or behavior online It may, however, influence a culture–a point to which we willsoon return.

Perhaps Kopimism is a well-executed publicity stunt. Certainly, the unexpected arrival of a new church has the hallmarks of a piece of performance art. Comparisons between Kopimism and the Jedi movement are thus inevitable.

The Jedi phenomenon is a curious case of life and art imitating each other. George Lucas drew on ancient cultures when he created the “Star Wars” movies. In turn, the cinematic Jedis’ mystical connection to a life giving Force inspired real-life fans to claim the religion as their own. The movement came to prominence during the 2001 Australian census. Driven largely by a last-minute, grass-roots e-mail campaign, 70,000 Australians wrote in “Jedi” as their religion. Granted, a few of these responses were undoubtedly sincere. By this time, Jediism had grown into something of a religious movement, eager to distance itself from George Lucas’s fictional universe. The bulk of the Jedi census replies, however, appeared to be people’s enjoying being part of a nationwide prank and thumbing their noses at the government.

The sudden inrush of Kopimism membership and publicity certainly seems to have a similar flash-mob feel. And yet, there is a difference. Their Rebel roots notwithstanding, the Australian Jedis weren’t fighting against injustice in the census system. But the Kopimists are absolutely trying to call attention to a real problem: people do not agree on how much control a creator should have over their work.

In this light, one might see Kopimism as a pragmatic legal maneuver, designed to get governments out of the business of taking down websites for hosting or linking to infringing material. Swedish citizens have a legitimate gripe with their current copyright regime. As in the United States, Swedish copyright lasts not only until a work’s original creator has passed away, but for 70 years afterward. By the time the copyright on a work expires, its creator’s grandchildren may be dead as well. In what other field of human endeavor are your descendants entitled to a free paycheck for two generations?

The backlash against an overreaching copyright industry has taken many forms in Sweden. The country was once headquarters to The Pirate Bay, the world’s most notorious table of contents for copyrighted movies and songs. (The Pirate Bay also tracks perfectly legal materials.) Piratpartiet, the Swedish Pirate Party, garnered enough votes in 2009 to send two members to the European Parliament.

What’s happening in Sweden is a microcosm of the wider struggle between creation and sharing. Humanity is still coming to grips with fundamental questions on the ownership of ideas. Let’s gloss over the fundamental question of what it even means to own an idea, and jump right to the central issue of copyright.

What happens when one person copies another’s idea without permission? To call the act “theft” is to miss an important distinction. When a physical object is stolen, the owner no longer has it. Copying, by contrast, leaves the original in place and intact.

If copying is not theft, what is it? It’s a violation of a creator’s intent. A songwriter may not wish for their song to be played at a rally for a political cause they detest. A poet may bristle at the notion of their words making millions for, say, a tobacco company.

To what degree should we accommodate the wishes of content creators? If we grant them a limited-time monopoly on their ideas–a copyright or a patent–we hope for some return on our investment: an enriched literary culture, a more productive workforce, more advanced medicines, and so on. But how limited a time are we talking about?

On one end of the spectrum, we’d have no copyright protection at all. A band could sink thousands of dollars into equipment or studio time–only to discover a corporation using their songs in an ad jingle for free. Without a revenue stream, the group may disband, leaving both our culture and our economy poorer.

At the other extreme, we’d have infinite copyright. A publishing company could hold on to the rights to a book, song, or movie forever, choosing neither to publish it nor to license the rights to anyone else. Whole works of art would vanish into a cultural black hole, again leaving us impoverished.

Somewhere in the middle, then, would be the optimal copyright term. At some point, the advantages to our economy of investors betting on ideas would meet the efficiency gains of mass distribution. According to calculations by economist Rufus Pollock, this ideal term is 15 years. Coincidentally, this is close to the original 14-year copyright enacted by Congress in the Copyright Act of 1790. It’s certainly a far cry from the current term of death plus 70 years.

With such a wide gulf between what lawmakers are actually enacting and what’s actually good for humankind, it shouldn’t be surprising to see a fervent drive for change. To stifle new ideas, and to allow old ideas to perish, is tantamount to burning down the Library of Alexandria.

In this light, we can better understand the value system of the Kopimists. In their view, freedom of information for all humanity is not just a matter of practicality, but of moral right. It is not just an inconvenience or a legal hassle to forbid sharing. It is a moral wrong.

Why else would they fight so hard to have these rights recognized? People who just want a free copy of “TRON” simply don’t go do these lengths. Once we have acknowledged that Kopimists are acting from their own moral framework and belief system, we can see the connection to religion. Although, like Buddhism and Jainism, they do not worship a deity, they most certainly have values, beliefs, clergy, and rituals.

They even have weddings–well, a wedding, anyway. In April of this year, the world’s first Kopimist marriage ceremony took place in Belgrade. Incidentally, the biological analogy to the way couples copy and remix DNA was not lost on the church’s founders.

One public ceremony does not a religion make. Part of the long road to qualifying for official status in Sweden was acquiring the more mundane trappings of a church: clergy (ministers are referred to as “Ops”) and an organization. The language that spells out the church divisions, officers, and accounting rules is twice as long as the organization’s mission and precepts.

The core precepts themselves are stripped of bureaucratic or political language.

Here they are, translated straight from the church website:
  • Copying of information is ethically right.
  • Dissemination of information is ethically right.
  • Remixing is a more sacred kind of copying than perfect digital copying, because it expands and enhances the existing wealth of information.
  • Copying or remixing information communicated by another person is seen as an act of respect, and a strong expression of acceptance and Kopimistic faith.
  • The internet is sacred.
  • Code is law.

Kopimists claim to have sacred rituals as well, though their scriptures are a little hazy on what exactly these may be. During their digital service, participants “copy, remix and distribute . . . as much information between each other as possible,” then “engage the public in the practice of Kopimistic values [and] pass on the information obtained during worship to others.” The closest thing they have to prayer is the traditional “thx” exchanged at the end of the ceremony.

The alert reader will notice that the church does not specify that worshipers must be in the same physical building, or indeed even be worshiping at the same time. The only requirement appears to be that ones and zeroes be copied from one device to another.

If copying is sacred, are Kopimists hoping that downloading a movie via Bit-Torrent will suddenly become protected  religious speech under the Swedish Constitution, and therefore immune from copyright prosecution? Does a digital conversation between a worshiper and a priest count as a confession, even if it happens to contain an MP3 of Katy Perry?

Kopimists are not so na├»ve. What they are hoping to protect are conversations incidental to copying–such as the exchange of a web link or its more decentralized cousin, a magnet link. They are hoping to reverse the tide of neutral technologies like the web or Bit-Torrent from being criminalized, just because they can potentially be used for illegal purposes.

When we focus too narrowly on laws or tools, we miss out on the fact that authors, musicians, and moviemakers want their works to be widely enjoyed. In the tug-of-war between creating and disseminating information, what we’re actually fighting over is consent.

Creators can spend their whole lives and all their energy tightening restrictions, fighting infringers, and getting sick to their stomachs every time their work pops up on yet another download site. Or they can double down on their creativity. Put up an online tip jar and post a link on every file sharing site. Charge a “pay what you want” price. Deliver a work as a serial, gating each chapter on a certain amount of reader donations.  Make money off extras: cheeky t-shirts, autographed copies, meet-and-greet events, and so on. All of these approaches have made real money for real people.

My books have turned up on download sites before. I’m not thrilled . . . but maybe I should be. The person who snags a copy without paying probably wasn’t going to buy the book in the first place. If they enjoy it, that’s a good thing, right? Maybe they’ll tell someone else who will buy it. The net result is selling one more copy than I otherwise would have.

The more restrictive alternative is to sell e-books in such a locked-down format that they can only be read on a certain device, in a certain way. This defies another kind of consent, that of the reader. They have not given me permission to enter their home and dictate how or when they enjoy the product that they paid good money for.

I’m glad my publisher, The Pragmatic Programmer, has chosen the more open approach. Sure, a few downloads will happen. But fostering a good relationship and a real connection between reader and writer enriches us all.

Can I get an amen? Or maybe even a “thx?”



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