Mark Helperin, author of Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto, believes the “monopoly” concept of copyright to be erroneous.1 He describes it as an argument made by those who push for a more free and open public domain, and insists that it is a misinterpretation of the meaning of a monopoly. Helperin likens copyright ownership to the ownership of any other type of personal property, and dismisses copyright as no more of a monopoly than that of a man being entitled to control the sale of a watermelon that was gown in his own garden, or a man having a monopoly over the exploitation of his own labor.
There are several false analogies made in Helperin’s argument. First, copyright protects only the expression of an idea, not the idea itself, but in Helprin’s comparison of copyright to personal property he assumes that all personal property owned by an individual was created by that same individual. Usually, in a capitalist society like the United States, people purchase items off of the market place, which are typically mass produced by a manufacturer or corporation. The individual then owns that property until he or she transfers, abandons, or otherwise destroys their ownership rights by their own volition. By this analogy, under current copyright laws one might purchase an item off of the marketplace for personal use, and maintain ownership for a limited period of time before having to place the item back on the market. This makes very little sense because the policy behind the two types of ownership control are completely different, making this an impossible comparison. Since most personal property is not created by the owner but by a company, no public good would be made of forcing an owner of a chattel to place it back on the market place after a period of time for another person to purchase. This example made by Helperin might have worked better in feudal times when most people farmed and produced their own goods. In copyright ownership, it is in the public interest to allow for open access to ideas and information in order to build upon and improve science, technology, and art. It would not be very helpful to to public good for me to put my MP3 player back on the market for another to purchase, but it would be helpful to the public and society as a whole for the manufacturer of an MP3 player to have limited ownership over their design patent, so that over time another developer may build upon and improve the idea – perhaps even better than the original creator – in order to promote the progress of that particular type of technology.