The Power of Definitions

This is a post about the words we choose to define abstract concepts with and how they have great influence over the way we consider them.  Certainly this isn’t a new concept, as George Orwell described newspeak in his book Nineteen Eighty Four.  But in the realm of copyright, not to mention politics, definitions frequently are used to manipulate particular thoughts and impressions on the listener/reader.  A discussion might be helpful in further discussion of the issues involved.

Intellectual Property – When discussing intellectual works, many people refer to copyright protected material as “intellectual property”.  While I too have used that term, I have come to loathe the perversion it represents.  “Intellectual property” evokes the idea that copyright protection is an absolute right, rather than a balancing of competitive interests.  Absent the human creation of copyright law, published creations freely reside in the public domain.  Using the term property eliminates the consideration of intellectual works as this balance of rights, since our ownership society understands the bounds of property much more clearly than abstract copyright law.

Consumer – It’s disconcerting that terms like Citizen, Public, customer, or client have been lumped into the term “consumer”.  The word has a passive connotation, simply a person who uses or buys goods.  Calling the same person a customer or client gives them more credibility, since we know that customers can be discerning and have the luxury of choice.  Citizen and Public are the most powerful descriptions of the same persons.  These terms evoke responsibility and awareness, because our actions as citizens are larger than just for our narrow self-interests.

Creators – As a music industry vet, this is a term that I’m particularly aware of.  Whenever a controversy erupts in the realm of copyright, “creators” are invariably trotted out as a sympathy ploy.  Unfortunately copyright law does not enrich creators nearly as much as publishers, so the creator ends up being a patsy.  Think Lars Ulrich from Metallica when the music labels were reeling from Napster, or Disney’s using Mickey Mouse for copyright extension efforts.  Whereas the public may not believe that the music industry needs more restrictive laws to govern music usage, they may be supportive of Metallica’s loss of sales; similarly copyright extensions above and beyond “life of creator” only benefits ageless corporations like Disney, at the expense of the public’s unfettered usage of Mickey.

Therefore we must be vigilant when discussing issues revolving around copyright.  Lawyers and public relations companies resort to using innocuous terms for controversial subjects because it quells disagreement.  We should be careful not to adopt the loaded terms, or our arguments for balance will not be heard on their merits.


~ by Som on January 30, 2009.

2 Responses to “The Power of Definitions”

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