Steal Our Stuff, Please

Permission is hereby granted to reprint these essays in whole or in part

There’s been a big change at FEE that we hope will inspire you to appreciate and share our work more than ever before. What’s interesting about this change is how it both embodies the philosophy we represent and recaptures the deep history of this institution.

The Foundation for Economic Education has always been incredibly generous with reprint permissions. Now, we’ve codified that generosity and announced to the world. As the footer of this site now says, everything on the site that is not otherwise marked is part of the Creative Commons. The license we chose is CC BY 4.0, which means that you can email, repost, share, reprint, adapt, sell or do anything else with our content. The only proviso is that you must credit FEE as the source and note if you’ve made any changes. That’s it.

This is a free-market answer. Not every action of government imposition on market institutions allows for a way out. But in the case of copyright — a regulatory intervention that has become a major source of mischief in the digital age — Creative Commons is the answer that freedom-lovers can embrace.

I will explain more about the origin of this new license, but let’s first note this striking fact: since FEE’s founding in 1946, all its publications have eschewed conventional copyright in favor of a market-based answer.

If you look at printed books by Leonard Read or any issue of The Freeman all the way back to the 1950s, you will find this note: “Permission is hereby granted to reprint these essays in whole or in part.” Here is the way the note looked to readers:

 

The plainness of this sentence underplays the sheer radicalism of the notion. It represented a complete departure from how the publishing industry operated. FEE founder Leonard Read didn’t come out of the publishing industry, nor was he an academic. He did not know about publishing conventions, and thank goodness.

Read was a wholesale grocer in Michigan and then head of the chamber of commerce in Los Angeles. He brought his real-world experience to the world of ideas. He learned from business that it is impossible to succeed if people don't know about your product. No matter how good a product or service is, you can’t sell it if your potential customers don’t know you exist. A merchant has to be a salesperson, which means marketing in every way possible. Obscurity is an entrepreneur’s biggest enemy.

He also learned that persuasion — not coercion — is the only way to be a success in the long run. It’s never a good idea to threaten your customers with warnings to do this or to not do that. Making them happy is the best way forward.

In those days, the “free sample” was a major way that merchants got customers hooked and coming back for more. This was great advertising. Further, if customers who shared with others could help the merchant’s cause, that was all the better. Read took these lessons with him when he started his ideological venture.

FEE’s product was an idea: the philosophy of freedom. An idea is not like a physical good. Once it is produced, it can be reproduced infinitely. Ownership of ideas is shared by all. You can’t take an idea from me. You can adopt the same idea as your own, transform it, and pass it on without reducing the supply or depreciating the original idea.

Copyright introduces a coerced artificiality — by legislation enforced by bureaucracies — into what would otherwise be a good that could be distributed to the whole world, forever. Every copyright claim is an implicit threat to use government coercion against a person who wants to evangelize for what you produce.

Put that way, it must have struck Leonard Read as crazy to prohibit reprints and copying of material from FEE.

While The Freeman had a copyright notice, if only to prevent others from grabbing the material and using the law to exclude others from its use, the teeth of that notice were pulled completely with the simple sentence above. It removed the fear associated with sharing. It took government out of the business of promoting freedom.

In taking this radical step, Read completely departed from publishing conventions. It was FEE’s secret weapon. The economics texts and interventionist literature of the time all used restrictive copyrights. FEE, on the other hand, was available to the world. And it worked. Freeman articles were reprinted in newspapers all over the country. They reappeared in magazines. When the mimeograph machine came along, it was common for FEE subscribers to make as many copies as they could and hand them out to all.

But didn’t Read charge for sending the publication out? Yes, most of the time. But charging for a service is different from charging for an idea. As with many Internet startups today, Read gave away his core product for free and sold the scarce good to whomever was willing to buy. The results were amazing. He built a large and influential institution, the first free-market think tank. It was the pro-freedom app that the world needed.

Half a century would pass before others began to catch up to his vision. Vexed by the incredible problems afflicting the digital world, three scholars in the field — Lawrence Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred — founded Creative Commons in 2001 to be an alternative to conventional copyright. The least restrictive license is akin to what Leonard Read put in his notice. The most restrictive (no remixing, no selling, for example) is closer to conventional copyright, meaning that it still holds a coercive threat to consumers.

Today, it is normal to see books published in the commons. Indeed, the entire industry of open-source software uses the commons model to encourage widespread collaboration. Wikipedia itself uses a license called Creative Commons Sharealike, meaning that you can reprint so long as Wikipedia is allowed to reprint you. The beauty of CC is twofold: it gets around a barrier erected by government and it offers a much larger range of options on the terms of publishing.

To be sure, in a truly free market, there would be no such thing as the institution of copyright at all, simply because ideas are not subject to the constraints of ownership. You can own a book. You can own a CD. You can own a film reel. You can own an image. But the ideas and images and arrangements of notes they broadcast publicly are not scarce goods and therefore not commodifiable or excludable absent the use of aggressive force.

The history of copyright itself is bound up with the state and its ambitions to control the population, the same as any other government plan. In the 16th-century political struggles of England, Queen Elizabeth had an idea for suppressing religious dissent. She declared that the government had to approve anything printed. It was the first action of what eventually became known as copyright. It was a tool for censorship through the creation of monopolies.

As the centuries went on, copyright took on new forms, but the principle remained the same. Government would assign rights to what should really be free for all. Even then, modern copyright didn’t become what it is today until the late 19th century (internationalized with the Berne Convention of 1886), meaning that most authors and composers didn’t use it.

Did authors make money without copyright? Of course they did. So did composers, sculptors, painters, and architects. They all relied on good marketing and the first-mover advantage to promote their works. Before the Berne Convention, copyright could only be enforced within a nation’s borders, which is why so many American schoolkids in the 19th century were reading British literature. It was possible to print and distribute cheaply, unlike the protected American literature.

In the course of the 20th century, the law became ever tighter. Copyright once lasted 28 years. You had to apply for it to be “protected” by it. Today, copyright is automatic. And it lasts not only throughout your lifetime, but up to 70 years past your death. Such ridiculous terms are a result of lobbying by powerful commercial interests like the Walt Disney Company — even though Disney made its corporate empire by taking from the commons! The extension has been a disaster for literature, causing many decades of great writing to vanish into the ether rather than be put online for the world.

Even now, major sectors of economic life thrive without copyright. There is no copyright in the design of clothing, for example, which is one reason that fashion is such an exciting and competitive industry. You can’t copyright recipes, and yet somehow, recipe books and restaurants thrive. It’s the same with fonts, football plays, and architecture. Without “intellectual property,” which really just creates a government-protected monopoly, you get that beautiful market feature called competition.

Today’s most exciting innovations and major swaths of economic progress are made possible by the Internet, which is, at its root, the world’s largest copy machine. There can be no real future for copyright as we know it in such a world.

The laws are gradually breaking down, as they must. Even the movie industry is realizing that it made a mistake in treating its customers and potential customers as thieves.

In adopting an unrestricted Creative Commons license, FEE is taking a giant step toward embracing the freedom model, getting ahead of the technological curve, and recapturing Read’s brilliant legacy.

As Read wrote,

Honest thinkers are always stealing unconsciously from each other.… There is, in fact, no way to fasten ownership claims to an idea, which is spiritual, as we do with material things — copyright laws and legal jargon to the contrary notwithstanding. Might as well try to draw property lines around a cloud or a wish or a dream or Creation. Ideas are forever in a state of fusion and/or flux and they defy any precise earmarking.

Fear not, readers. “Steal” this article or any article on this site not otherwise marked. Dig through our 70 years of archives and spread the good word to the world. FEE will never use the power of the state to block the spread of what we believe.

Further Reading

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