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Copyright and the Common Good

The first argument for copyright argues that copyrights are either required for or are the best way of ensuring the progress of science, the pursuit of the arts, and the promotion of advancements in technology. They further argue that these goals are properly pursued by the government. It is that second claim that I am examining now.

In order to determine whether the government ought to pursue a goal, we first have to determine whether that goal is in the common good. A few distinctions are necessary at this point. The government may choose to pursue the common good in a particular way even though that way is not the only way it can be pursued. This is permissible if both particular way must be chosen and there is no moral reason to favor one way over another. For example, cars must drive on only one side of the road. However, there is no reason to favor the right side of the road rather than the left side. This means that the common good may be pursued either directly or indirectly.

The common good are those actions required by society in order to maintain the rights and freedoms of individuals within that society. The common good is only common if society as a whole requires it. Individuals do not have common goods. Organizations also have common goods, but since they do not serve the whole of society, they lack the powers of a government. Common goods only include those required by society for two reasons. First, their good is not intrinsic. They are only good because they support the rights and freedoms of the individuals within society. If we permitted actions that would not required to do that, then common goods would be treated as if they were intrinsic. Second, if common goods were not necessary then they would permit governments to have unnecessary control over citizens. The experience of totalitarian regimes shows that such a thing would have horrible consequences. The common good values the rights and freedoms of individuals above all else. Since these are the intrinsic goods within society, nothing else would be properly valued. Finally, the common good is limited to that required to ‘ maintain’ the rights and freedoms of individuals. The common good is only good as long as it maximizes the rights and freedoms of individuals.

From this, it is immediately obvious that copyright is not in the common good. The pursuit of science, the arts and promotion of technology are all permitted by the freedoms of speech, association, expression and excellence. To promote these things in particular would be to favor those who do them above others. This is against the common good because it is an example of favoritism. Unless there were any reason to believe that these sorts of activities were better than those given by other freedoms, a preference for some would be unjustified. But these sorts of activities are not better than any other good activities. Therefore, copyright is not in the common good directly. But neither is it in the common good indirectly. (Remember that this is an argument for copyright that does not assume that intellectual property exists.) The pursuit of science, the arts and technology do help human society. The problem is that all other goods also help human society. So there is no reason to favor these over others. Therefore, copyright is not in the common good. The first argument for copyright is a failure.

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