neal stephenson on copyright: relax

Interview with Neal Stephenson about, in part, publishing models, copyright, hacking tools, and the First Amendment.

12) Do new publishing models make sense? – by Infonaut

Have you contemplated using any sort of alternative to traditional copyright for your works of fiction, such as a flavor of Creative Commons [] license? Do you feel that making money as a writer and more open copyright are compatible in the long term, or do you think that writers like Lessig who distribute electronically via CC are merely indulging in a short-lived fad?


Publishing is a very ancient and crafty industry that existed and flourished before the idea of copyright even existed. When copyright came into existence, the publishing industry dealt with it and moved on. My suspicion is that everything that’s been going on lately will amount to a sort of fire drill that will force publishing to scurry around and make some new arrangements so that they can get back to making money for themselves and for authors.

You can use the brick-and-mortar bookstore as a way to think about this. There was a time maybe five years ago when many people were questioning whether brick-and-mortar bookstores were going to survive the onslaught of online retailers. Now, if you take the narrow view that a bookstore is nothing more than a machine that swaps money for books, then it follows that there’s no need for a physical store. But here we are five years later. Some bookstores have gone out of business, it’s true. But there are big, beautiful bookstores all over the place, with sofas and coffee bars and author appearances and so on. Why? Because it turns out that a bookstore is a lot more than a machine that swaps money for books.

Likewise, if you think of a publisher as a machine that makes copies of bits and sells them, then you’re going to predict the elimination of publishers. But that’s only the smallest part of what publishers actually do. This is not to say that electronic distribution via CC is just a fad, any more than online bookstores are a fad. They will keep on going in parallel, and all of this will get sorted out in time.

— from a Q&A with neal stephenson, slashdot, 10/20
There were a number of other interesting tidbits. I also liked this one:

Do you think that hacking tools should be protected (in the United States) under the second amendment?


Such is the intensity of issues like this that I can’t tell whether this is a troll. I’m going to assume it’s not, and answer the question seriously.

I’m no constitutional scholar but I’m pretty sure that the Founding Fathers were thinking of flintlocks, not perl scripts, when they wrote the Second Amendment. Now you can dispute that and say “No, anything that enables citizens to defend themselves against an oppressive government is covered by the Second Amendment.” There might be something to such an argument. But pragmatically, the question is whether you can get nine (or at least five) non-hacker Supreme Court Justices to see it that way. I suspect the answer is no. It’s just too easy for them to say “it is not a weapon.” To me it seems a lot easier simply to invoke the First Amendment.

Also, remember that there might be unwanted side effects to classifying code as weapons. In the U.S., where the right to bear certain weapons is written into the Constitution, it might seem like a clever way to secure access to such code. But authorities in other countries might say “look, even the U.S. Government defines this string of bits as a weapon—so we are going to outlaw it.”

It’s difficult to form an intelligent opinion on issues like this without doing a lot of work. One has to learn a lot about the issues and then think about them pretty hard. I haven’t really done so, and so I’m inclined to trust people who have, like Matt Blaze. At he has posted some interesting material that is germane to this topic.


and especially

To make a long argument short, what I have learned from Matt’s writings on the topic is that (1) it’s not a new issue, (2) it’s a First Amendment issue, and (3) it’s best in the long run, for all concerned, if vulnerabilities are exposed in public.