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Why I Infringe

By Annalee Newitz

I LIKE TO violate copyright every day. Usually, it's in some small way. I'll copy an Oingo Boingo CD for a friend, Xerox an interesting essay from an anthology or maybe download an episode of Six Feet Under from a file-sharing network. Sometimes, I go bigger, like the time I bought a bunch of cracked software from a guy who was literally standing in a shady doorway or when I bought a pirated DVD on the street in New York. (Yes, it looked like shit when I played it.)

I only steal from the rich. Once, I copied a Mountain Goats CD because I loved it so much and couldn't find it anywhere. As soon as I could, I bought that CD and about five more by the same band. That was a situation were I was sure that the artist, who works through an independent label, would actually get my money. I don't have that same feeling about creators whose work is owned by giant media conglomerates. And frankly, I really don't care if Danny Elfman never sees the money he might have made if I hadn't copied that Oingo Boingo CD. He's rich enough as it is.

When I was a kid, I cried while reading Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the dystopian novel about a future where books are illegal. I can remember big, hot tears rolling down my face during the scene where the evil authorities are burning books. Bradbury describes each one as if it were human: Alice from Alice in Wonderland screams in agony; Shakespeare's characters weep as they are reduced to ash.

I know it's sentimental, but I think of creative works as if they were somehow human, as if they had lives of their own--many lives, playing out in strange, unknowable ways inside each mind that absorbs them. And when I see art and music and writing and movies and TV shows forbidden to me by Draconian copyright laws, I don't think about legal documents full of tidy little justifications of property law. I see living beings in chains. I see Mickey Mouse, who has tried to escape again, burned by the lash. I hear Marilyn Monroe, imprisoned by her copyrighted image, howling to get free.

And I want to set her free. I want to see Marilyn running around in the open air, somersaulting in the grass, smiling and pirouetting for anyone who wants to watch her. I want people to invite her into their own imaginations and turn her into something else.

I've never been one for pussyfooting around when it comes to liberating what some corporation or mogul calls "private property." I don't really give a shit about capitalism. I think it's a scam. Rich guys who own everything trade stocks, and the rest of us, who own the vast majority of nothing, watch welfare wither away. If we make something beautiful and try to make a living by selling it, we can't own it. My beautiful thing will be the property of some company who has slapped a cover on it.

I'll leave it to Lawrence Lessig to explain how copyright limitations can nourish free trade and money-making. I'll let Declan McCullagh explain why there is no contradiction between capitalism and civil liberties for all. I don't care if my file-sharing cripples the economy. I want to rebel against the property holders, the people who took away our beautiful things and called them commodities.

Until culture belongs to all of us equally, I will continue to infringe.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who once fell in love with someone because he had cracked the copyright protection on her favorite piece of software.

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From the July 31-August 6, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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