posted Aug 19, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Corollary: Clarification of the Concreteness Criterion . (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

Under this formulation, something very like copyright law applies to concrete parts. Current copyright law requires that an expression must concretely exist before it can be protected. In light of the previous section, we can further clarify this to say that in order to exist in the eyes of the law, a copyrighted work must exist in a tangible form experiencable by a human. Until it is experiencable by a human, it is neither protected, nor can it constitute infringement.

This is a direct consequence of "Only humans communicate." A copy of a document on a hard drive is not itself a tangible form experiencable by a human. We lack the sensory apparatus to directly experience the magnetic changes on the hard drive or the electric currents that it uses to communicate with computers. Only when the document is rendered to the screen does it become experiencable by a human. This more closely matches our intuition of when infringement occurs.

Going back to a previous example I used of a hacked server being used to serve out illegal copies of software, this helps us understand how we can rationally not hold the server owner responsible. Assuming the owner never uses the software on their hard drive, the owner has not committed any copyright violation. Yes, illegal software is sitting on their hard drive, but who cares? The owner of the hard drive is not experiencing the content.

As a bit of a tangent, I wouldn't even recommend trying to charge the owner with contributory infringement; perhaps someday we will be good enough at writing secure software that we can hold a server owner responsible for everything that happens on that server. But at the current state of the art, where software still routinely has all the structural integrity of swiss cheese, there is never any way to reasonably guarantee that a computer can not be misused.

Another example: The mere act of downloading anything, be it software, music, a document, whatever, is not intrinsically unethical (abstracting away potential second-order effects like using bandwidth somebody else paid for inappropriately). Until the content is experienced, the mere copying is a null event.


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