posted Aug 16, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Goodbye, First Sale Doctrine. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

An expression can be physically possessed. A communication can not. In the case of something like a book, what is possessed is merely one incarnation of the communication, not the communication itself. So it's not surprising that the First Sale doctrine is coming under attack. Yes, there are obvious monetary motives behind the attacks, but the whole idea of a First Sale doctrine critically depends on the world only consisting of expressions. Even without the monetary motivation, the doctrine was doomed to fall anyhow.

It is not necessarily the case that the only possible outcome is that no sharing or ownership is ever allowed, though. For instance, there's no need to restrict a person's right to record a given communication. Indeed, there are many practical reasons to consider such a right necessary. While I would not want to go so far as to call it a right, demanding that a customer only be allowed to receive some communication within a certain time frame, even if they have the technical ability to shift that time frame, is just pointlessly jerking the customer around; it may satisfy the sender's need to control things but it's nothing but a harm to the consumer with no conceivable benefit to society at large.

It is also possible to work out ethically valid ways of sharing a message. The idea that Tom and Fred watching a pay-per-view movie together is ethically OK, but it's wrong for Tom to tape the pay-per-view movie and giving it to Fred for one viewing, is silly. The effect is the same in both cases. The opposite extreme, copying the movie to a computer and allowing the world to download it at will is also obviously a bad idea (even if you don't buy the economic arguments for that, it effectively destroys the moral rights of the authors), but there are intermediate possibilities. Consider a legitimate DVD being allowed to make unlimited copies for his immediate family (or cohabitants, or X people, any limited group), perhaps at some quality loss, but not allow anyone to copy the copies.

There is no way around the fact that the guidelines will be fuzzy and subject to judicial review. In no way does that obligate us ethically to believe that the draconian measures that Hollywood is pushing for are the only solution. Fuzziness is part of life.


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