Prometheus, Meet Thomas Jefferson: On Fire, Stealing And Sharing

from the an-xkcd-parable dept

Meet Prometheus:

Zeus… assigned Prometheus the task of forming man from water and earth, which Prometheus did, but in the process, became fonder of men than Zeus had anticipated. Zeus didn’t share Prometheus’ feelings and wanted to prevent men from having power, especially over fire. Prometheus cared more for man than for the wrath of the increasingly powerful and autocratic king of the gods, so he stole fire from Zeus’ lightning, concealed it in a hollow stalk of fennel, and brought it to man.

Meet Thomas Jefferson:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

And… take it away xkcd:

You cannot steal that which cannot be stolen.

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Comments on “Prometheus, Meet Thomas Jefferson: On Fire, Stealing And Sharing”

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Eponymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The historical value of fire itself is probably nigh incalculable (well worth magnitudes more than $100 million to society); what with the cooking of food, the use as a weapon, the use in medicine (to cauterize), the use as a beacon and lighting, the use as a heat source, the use as an aid to chemistry, and so on and so on… so this is a real world example in how the value in something is what benefits us all, not just what can be leveraged out by a controlling stakeholder!

Eponymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Society exists today because our ancestors “freeloaded”, and for that I’m grateful to all those “freeloaders” who came before me to carry on with the tradition! To argue against freeloading is to argue not just against mankind, but nature itself for it is a part of the natural order (that pesky pollen freeloading on those hard working bees, curses!)… if you have a problem with that maybe the Moon, or Mars would be a more habitable place for a curmudgeon like yourself!

Coyote (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

And who says the person who ‘freeloads’ doesn’t then pay for the entertainment down the line? I’ve often pirated material because I did not, at the time, have the money to pay for it, or it was unavailable, and then later down the line, I purchased it, because I enjoyed the content.

It does not make infringement ‘justifiable’. It simply means the way business is being made is changing, and as I will always maintain, you adapt or you die. Our ancestors sure understood this fact — so why can’t old men in suits?

It’s a simple reason. They don’t want to adapt, and you appear to be on their side — of refusing to adapt. Strange thing is, you’re on the train tracks, and the progression train is coming your way. All you can ‘hope’ to do is slow it down, but in the long run, you’ll be squished under those tracks.

Some companies get it. They ‘get’ this age old business idea of adapting or dying with the times. You, though, you seem to be stuck in this idea that ‘if it doesn’t fit my notions and ONLY my notions, therefore it simply cannot be.’ You may also be asking yourself ‘what does this have to do with me at all?’

Simple. As with our ancestors, we are all freeloaders, in sense. Should copyright have existed back then in the form it is today, would we have all these great works, great literature and books, great buildings and true works of art? In all likelihood, no, we wouldn’t. With copyright as it is now, culture is constantly being lost, constantly shoveled under ‘royalties’ and ‘payments’ due to the corporations that hold them, not even the families or the creator, the publishers and labels.

Today’s society would not be here if copyright existed in the form it does today, back then. There’s so much we learned from back then that it’s unthinkable how we would’ve got here with such a ludicrous thing back then. I’m not expert, by all means, but it stands to reason, were it for copyright, many works would be lost to history, lost to culture and time, and society, culture and all these pretty little things we have right now, would be far different.

We are all freeloaders, much as our ancestors were, and we are better off it the more. This is not justifying infringement, but merely understanding why it exists in the form it does, and understanding how to combat it — most everyone people adore have done something and offered something better than free. In fact, most people who ‘pirate’ do so out of convenience, or not wanting to be called a ‘thief’ even if you bought it legit. Do you know why people adore those who understand this, and work to compete directly with the pirates and pirating sites?

Because people like supporting artists they love, authors they love, without going to the ludicrous amounts of bullshit publishers want to put you through, and even having the gall to call you a ‘thief’ for buying something legit.

My point, really, is that you’re full of shit and always have been, and always will be. You, Horse with No Name, AJ and Out of the Blue, though I can never tell you apart.

You all sure sound off the same soundbytes enough.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:


Antennas aren?t just for grandma?s boob tube anymore: 19.3 percent of all US TV households get their TV fix from free over-the-air broadcasts, according to a new GfK study released this week. This means that 22.4 million households representing 59.7 million Americans get their TV for free, the market research firm estimates.

If he can’t the other 60 million freetard Americans just may.


horse with no name says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Horrible distorted report.

With the advent of OTA HD, many consumers put up antennas or returned to using them because they were not getting the signals on cable, or they were not available in as good a quality.

With the economic downturn, cable / sat TV would be seen by some as an expense they can live without, making “cord cutting” a good idea for them.

Remember also, even the original report (if you can find it under all the cross linked opinion blogs in this chain) points of that the lowest point of all for OTA reception was just before the arrival of HD, at about 14%… that means that you are only seeing a 5% shift (meaning about 5 million households total).

Out of the 60 million “people”, you have to figure that 45 million of them never had a cable to cut.

nice try, but FAIL.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:


Instead, Netflix is looking to cultivate dedicated niche audiences, and is paying very close attention to the ways its subscribers are interacting with each piece of content. If they watch en episode of a show, are they opting to watch the second one as well? If they go from watching a movie to a TV show episode, does it fit into a pattern that lets you predict about what they?re going to watch next?

Netflix just may become the next “Big Content Provider”, along with Amazon, Microsoft and Google all of which are investing in original content and ways to finance and get a return from it in some way or another.

In ten years the next “Game of Thrones” could be in one of those today not so obvious places.

Further they are going to displace telcos and cable companies also who are starting to become a problem for “cloud computing” trying to charge “transit” fees that are already paid to their own service providers, forcing those new content providers to actually build their own networks and infra-structure, which includes, communication satelites, transoceanic fiber cables, IXPs, CDNs, etc.

Trelly (profile) says:

Which fire are they talking about? The one that was genetically engineered to burn more more orangy?

Of course, Prometheus, Zeus, and Jefferson are all guilty of infringing on my patents regarding anything that brings fire, the scent of fire, the appearance of fire, or any firey like doodad to the internet.

Prometheus, Zeus, and Jefferson … meet my attack dogs from, their sister site, and (names may change in the near future depending on litigation requirements).

jameshogg says:

The only way we will ever debate this topic clearly is by seeing it through the lens of investing in a creator’s ability to create instead of the creations themselves.

A builder can get along fine by providing a service, and he does not necessarily need to have any physical property to provide this service. A land owner may have all the equipment and bricks he needs to make a house, but it is all ultimately useless if he does not know how to build a house. That is why he hires a builder to do it for him. This is what it means to trade off goods and services with one another.

The builder’s skills may be classified as his “property” by an advocate of John Locke just as much as other tangible goods, and quite rightly. The way you steal this property is to enforce tyrannical laws that either forbid him from building in order to make a living or say that the property he uses belongs to the state and therefore cannot be messed with.

I hope it becomes clear that copyright law is therefore in direct conflict with John Locke’s concept of property. Because what it does is deny the true prospering of artistic expression as an ability by forcing all monetisation to stay away from this ability and instead exist within a NON-tangible good.

And as a result, the true value of a creator’s skills is distorted, he is forced to claim the entire world as being within his “fence” (universe in EMI’s Beatles-Voyager case?) which is a delusional utopia that encourages a great deal of Luddism, it means the creator surrenders his freedom when he puts his trust in his audience not to break this copyright law – quite similar to placing trust in a government not to abuse a free-speech restriction, and to top it all off it denies the fruits of labour that John Locke quite rightly defended in relation to derivative artists – not just at their expense but at the expense of their audiences as well.

The main justification of copyright is usually that the “free-rider” problem that stems from someone being able to take something from the creator without giving anything in return must be resisted. It is usually followed up by a gentle reminder that this free-rider problem does not stop at the casual Bit Torrenter, but extends towards those who will make tons of money from selling pirated goods. This is a serious question but it can be answered.

First point out of two, it must be noted that if there is a “free-rider” problem that exists without copyright, that free-rider problem must also exist with the pirates just as much as it does with those selling official copies (this “official” distinction can still be made without the need for copyright with hardly any rights oppressed at all). Pirates would not be able to make anywhere near as much money as they could in a world with copyright, because since anybody is free to make copies of what they want there is not much incentive for them to make money from pirated goods. But the seller of official copies would always have the upper hand since by definition you cannot pirate and claim the new good is official. Everybody will end up being drawn towards selling these official copies in order to stay in business.

This is why the fashion industry works so well – everyone buys the brands and the knock-offs are put in their place: outside in tiny street markets where it is seen as foolish to throw away money on imitations of products instead of going to the high-street stores to get the real thing instead. The so-called piracy here is domesticated in a way that copyright law could never dream of: all it can do is push the piracy underground, causing Al-Capone-like, untaxed illegal monopolies resulting from LEGAL (intellectual) monopolies, which ironically eliminates the pirates’ own personal free-rider problem since the pirated goods obtain a tainted value.

In fact, the only thing stopping most economists from saying why the fashion industry model of business can be adapted to the copyrighted creative industries as an alternative is that there is not enough incentives even from the branding. This leads me to my second point: assurance contracts. This is what fills in the gap. Tickets, pre-orders and others are proven ways of funding creators in a way that nobody can be cheated, and its pinnacle is being demonstrated in the crowdfunding revolution. Though this revolution is still young, it will be something to be feared once it matures. Because what you will have is an answer to the economists’ challenge of missing incentives for this fashion-industry based model.

As communication proliferates, through mail services, phone calls, morse code, radio, cassette, TV, satellite and now the internet, it is no coincidence that the power of assurance contracts has increased since more people can put money into the “hat” at once. It is much easier to book tickets and preorders than before. This is why I call crowdfunding the “pinnacle” of assurance contracts because it is born out of the internet’s beginnings. Crowdfunding would have been possible in, say, the 1940s and 1950s with the radios and phones, just not as obvious. (But before my critics take this as ammunition and say that crowdfunding would therefore only work in an interconnected, globalised world, they should bear in mind that pirating and plagiarism would have been unenforceable in these times as well since it would be hard to communicate and spot where it was happening.)

And the best thing about it is that the pledges are not limited to the consumers, but also the middlemen. Watch as YouTube via Google will start making high pledges worth tens of thousands of dollars or more in order to get revenue from the content being hosted on YouTube – multiply this with other middlemen who want rights to the official broadcasting: cable companies, maybe even ISPs to an extent, and you have your own “crowd” of corporations pledging and being part of the bigger crowd of consumers all making pledges to the creator.

And all the balance of power swings the creator’s way.

Why? Because his skills are ultimately important, not his products. He can dictate what price he is worth through how popular he is. And if he doesn’t get enough, nobody gets anything. That is how the deal should always be as a matter of principle: controlled and clear.

And… oh yeah. Derivative artists have their rights protected (we can use signatures and trademarks to distinguish originals from derivatives), fair-use/free expression issues simply do not become issues anymore, monopolistic powers are cut everywhere all the way from the MPAA to Kim Dotcom and the Chinese trade cheaters, DRM will be seen as what it is – a euphemism for malware, everyone’s fruits of labour become free from repression in true Lockean style, no international issues about something being copyrighted in one country but not another (in fact the money should go up for the creator when he uses crowdfunding on an international scale since exporting becomes less of an issue), cultures become more free-flowing while at the same time monetised justly, international cultures will benefit – for example the numerous anime fans of the West would be more than ready to give the Japanese studios crowdfunded money and make them rich on a scale never seen before, file-sharing will not be repressed to the darker corners of the internet and instead embraced which will allow powerful out-sourcing of data that will greatly decentralise information away from powerful enemies and be a direct challenge to cloud computing, the open source software movement will grow in leaps and bounds as more of the programmers get their funding from crowdfunds.

I could go on.

Copyright does not yield that kind of power for a second. It is a status-quo conservative position that is, as I have said, prone to Luddite tendencies. Sure, you might get many creators naturally walking away with money as a result of copyright’s monopolistic tendencies, but it is not a lesser evil I am afraid, not when it pushes people to oppose the development of communication technology as a whole. Never mind the crushing of derivative artists’ potential fruits of labour that massively outnumber copyright-protected successes (so you could even say that copyright is ANTI “intellectual” property, NOT for it), the attacks on free speech, the danger of DRM opening doors ranging from criminal hackers to a PRISM-tending government, the attacks on facilities that are greatly used by revolutionary forces in the Middle East and Asia, the deliberate overruling of public-domains of other countries, the extradition of domestically-lawful websites like Richard O Dwyer’s TV links website (the ISPs of the US were more to blame for allowing access to that site on US soil for fuck sake).

I hope I have made my point clear.

People who still dig their heads in the sand about this really invite historical disapproval. They will be compared with the Luddites who said that technology would somehow repress workers rights when it is copyright law that has done the most of this repressing.

Marilynn Byerly (profile) says:

Ideas can't be copyrighted

All this is just wonderful, but, once again, everyone has it wrong.


You can tell the story of Prometheus and fire, and you are perfectly legal. If I write a short story about the same subject, my story is copyrighted so you have no right to it.

cpt kangarooski says:

Re: Ideas can't be copyrighted

You seem to have missed the forest for the trees.

What Jefferson said about ideas applies just as well to a creative work:

An individual may solely possess it as long as he keeps it to himself, check;
But the moment it is divulged, everyone else enjoys it and cannot dispossess themselves of it, check;
Everyone possesses all of it, and no one possesses any less of it for that, check;
It’s a benevolent aspect of nature that it can freely spread across the globe for the betterment of all mankind, check;

Which gets to his point, which was that there is no inherent right to either inventions (which is what he was discussing at the time), or as it happens, creative works. There may be artificially created rights to them, as he later goes on to discuss in the letter that the quote is an excerpt from, but they may or may not exist, as we find convenient.

Also remember that copyrights as implemented only pertain to original work; if you write a short story about Prometheus giving fire to man, I have a right to copy any part of it that didn’t originate from you.

Marilynn Byerly (profile) says:

Re: Re: Ideas can't be copyrighted

No, everything is copyrighted in a story because it’s the expression of the idea so you can’t claim that a paragraph out of a novel is yours. You can quote it, if you attribute it, and that’s fair use. If you take a paragraph out and insert it into your work without attribution, it’s plagiarism.

Just because you can take something doesn’t make that taking right.

If you take all hope of recompense out of the creative arts, you end up with far fewer creators and creations, and the quality of those creations left is much poorer because you take away most of the incentive of improving.

As more than a few of my friends in the creative arts have said, “We aren’t your bitches.”

Like the Little Red Hen, we’ll take our bread and leave you with nothing.

cpt kangarooski says:

Re: Re: Re: Ideas can't be copyrighted

No, everything is copyrighted in a story because it’s the expression of the idea

No, at least in the US, it’s a little more nuanced than that.

The Constituion says that Congress has the power to grant authors a copyright for their writing. (“The Congress shall have power … To promote the Progress of Science … by securing for limited Times to Authors … the exclusive Right to their respective Writings….”) By implication this must mean that copyrights cannot be granted to material which is not a writing of the author.

For example, if your story included a fact in it, say, that Mount Olympus is in Greece, you aren’t entitled to a copyright on that. I can copy, from your story, the fact that Mount Olympus is in Greece. Even if you were the first one to discover that fact, or you created that fact, or it took you a lot of work, time, and money to be able to include that fact, it doesn’t matter; it is not copyrightable.

Another way in which originality is relevant in copyright is in the case of derivative works such as your story which you said was based on a Greek myth. The part of your story which is not your creation, such as the myth, also does not fall under your copyright. I can copy the myth from your story and use it elsewhere as I see fit.

A recent example of this would be the Wizard of Oz movie that came out earlier this year. The original book was in the public domain, but the well known movie adaptation from the 1930s is still copyrighted. Thus, the filmmakers could copy freely from the book, and it wouldn’t matter if the material from the book had gone through the earlier movie. For instance, if the filmmakers were too lazy to read the book, and needed to know by what means one travels from the outskirts of Oz to the center, they could watch the movie to find out that a road of yellow brick could be used.

OTOH, the appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West is quite different from the book and the 1930s movie; Disney wanted a witch that resembled the movie version, and so they had to call in copyright lawyers to get as close as possible without going too far. (And even then, they’re surely relying heavily on other doctrines such as scenes a faire. For example, the witch in the novel had no broomstick, but the two movie witches do, and this is not infringing, because broomsticked witches is a stock device.)

Just because you can take something doesn’t make that taking right.

Nor does it make it wrong. Copyright is an amoral, utilitarian doctrine. Right and wrong don’t enter into it any more than they do for a zoning ordinance that requires houses to have white picket fences.

If you take all hope of recompense out of the creative arts, you end up with far fewer creators and creations, and the quality of those creations left is much poorer because you take away most of the incentive of improving.

Not all compensation in the creative arts is copyright related. The fashion industry in the US famously doesn’t have copyrights, but they do okay. Until 1990, architects couldn’t get copyrights on their architectural works, but this didn’t deter them one bit. (Nor had the availability of such copyrights spurred them to do anything they weren’t already going to do)

I myself was a successful artist for years, and supported myself comfortably by selling my labor to clients. I needed no copyrights and my clients didn’t care about them either. And the existence of a world full of art prior to the invention of copyright (1710 in England, the end of the 18th century for the US and France, and the 19th and 20th centuries for most of the world) proves that copyright might be useful but is not necessary.

Like the Little Red Hen, we’ll take our bread and leave you with nothing.

Feel free. I don’t support the abolition of copyright (I feel it can be useful to society), but I have no doubt that meaningful reform will disincentivize some authors. So be it. In such a situation, other improvements would outweigh the harm caused by their not creating their art, and while I’d love to have them at work, we would nevertheless be better off without them. If you disagree, I could always bring up my moon sculpture example.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Ideas can't be copyrighted

I believe the ‘if you write a short story about Prometheus giving fire to man, I have a right to copy any part of it that didn’t originate from you line isn’t saying that someone can copy what someone else has written and claim ownership of it(though that would fall under plagiarism more than copyright I’d think), but rather pointing out that, in the example given, while you could claim copyright over your interpretation of the myth, you could not actually lay claim, and then proceed to prohibit the use of, anything out of the core myth itself, which is exactly how culture is supposed to work.

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Ideas can't be copyrighted

Just because you can take something doesn’t make that taking right.

You realize that the entire friggin’ point of the article was that it’s not taking, right?

You may have copied that expression, but you haven’t divulged the original author of that expression, so you haven’t “taken” anything.

What you have done is infringed upon a statutory monopoly right; a government-granted right to a limited post-publication monopoly on a work that you authored. That is much different than “taking,” both legally and morally.

Furthermore, the only reason authors were granted that monopoly in the first place was to “promote the progress.” In the words of the Supreme Court, copyright “must ultimately serve the cause of promoting broad public availability of literature, music, and the other arts.” (Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken.)

People who infringe aren’t “taking” anything. They’re doing exactly what copyright was supposed to encourage in the first place.

Also: plagiarism and copyright infringement are totally different. If your use is a fair use, it’s still a fair use even if you don’t credit the original author.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Ideas can't be copyrighted

Just because you can take something doesn’t make that taking right.

And just because you can lock something up doesn’t make locking up all culture and ideas right.

Freeing culture and ideas does not take away ‘all hope of recompense’ and the evidence is mounting that it increases the amount of new ideas created and creative works authored.

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