Michael Geist: fictional character, or the real person?

Overall, CopyCamp last week was great and brought people with a wide variety of views of the future of creativity and the roll of the Internet together. There was one very odd phenomena that I would like to describe, and that is what happened whenever anyone mentioned the “G” word: Michael Geist.

Dr. Michael Geist is a law professor at the University of Ottawa where he holds the Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law. He has authored many academic papers, articles for newspapers, as well as running an active BLOG on related topics.

Whenever his name was brought up the conversation quickly split into two groups: people who see him as a great ally, and those who seem to think he has horns coming out of his head. Because of this strong split it was hard to have a reasonable conversation once his name came up, a form of Godwin’s Law for CopyCamp.

Michael participated in the last CopyCamp, giving what for many people may be a familiar talk which exposes some of the wonderful innovation that is happening on the Internet, and some of the legal threats to that innovation. When I asked some of those people who seem to dislike (to put it mildly) Michael, they sometimes even pointed to his participation last event in a “talk show” as their reason.

Mr. Geist did another talk recently which included what I believe to be the problem idea that turns some creators against him. The talk was titled The Copyright Myths (Update: There is text/newspaper and audio versions available), and was given during Public Policy Forum’s copyright symposium in April 2008.

If you listen to it, you can hear where he says that professional authors shouldn’t get paid, or don’t need to get paid. Please listen to it now. I’ll still be here when you return..

Ok. If you didn’t find it, don’t feel bad. It took me a long time to find it as well as someone who has listened to and read many of Mr. Geist’s talks and articles. Here it is: when discussing the importance of copyright he talks about creativity that happens without stronger copyright. He points to a number of sites such as Flickr and Wikipedia, and the creation/distribution of Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS), talking about how all of this stuff is freely available.

Freely available — that is the evil phrase you were looking for. The nearly hidden message from those who dislike Geist is that there is “one true” business model for human creativity, which is the collection of royalties when copies are made or the work is communicated, performed, etc. Since there is only “one true” business model, any talk about alternative business models or alternative methods of production must be anti-creator.

As a software author I consider myself a creator. I am also someone who only authors software that is either unique to a customer (never distributable) or is FLOSS, and largely only use FLOSS software (with a tiny handful of exceptions). By the logic being applied against Mr. Geist I am far more evil than he is.

I say more evil as I happen to agree with Professor Eben Moglen who in a talk in June 2007 had the following to say:

“Why is it ever moral to deprive people of that which they could have for nothing and which they wish to have, and you already have made? If you could feed everyone by baking one loaf of bread, and pressing a button, what would be the moral case for permitting the price of bread to be higher than the poorest hungry person could pay?”

Yes, I consider it immoral to charge more royalties than is necessary, which is why I believe it is only appropriate to use royalty-based business models in situations where no royalty-free business model is possible or feasible.

But that is me. Michael Geist has never suggested anything of the sort, and yet I was welcomed with open arms at CopyCamp (literally with hugs in a number of cases), while the mere mention of Mr. Geist would evoke negative emotions for some participants.

What I believe is happening is that as a well known media personality people have turned Michael Geist into a fictional character. They will attribute things to this fictional character that the real Michael Geist never said and doesn’t believe.

I have heard many interviews of the real Michael Geist. He is someone that wasn’t particularly a technical person. He started to notice some pretty exciting things on the Internet, and further noticed that there wasn’t many people thinking of the important legal and public policy questions these exciting things would bring up. There were some people expressing legal views, but far more often than not they were from special interests who largely wanted to put the Internet Genie back in the bottle, rather than embrace and protect new innovation.

Michael Geist decided to step in and try to help the voice of those people who were otherwise not being heard in the critical policy debates. It would be wrong to over-simplify this and call him a “users rights” advocate given what he is promoting is largely the interests of creators using new methods of production, distribution and funding. It just so happens that many of these interests are aligned with the interests of audiences.

Mr. Geist understands the truth of what law professor Lawrence Lessig has said which is that “Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.” (Listen to talk with slides (Flash)) Both Geist and Lessig are working to protect the rights of those younger authors who haven’t yet taken on executive positions within creator groups, and thus are not yet represented by these groups.

As a creator using one of the new methods of production, distribution and funding for creativity I consider Mr. Geist to be a great ally to a growing number of Canadian creators. I believe the fact that some of the people currently representing creators in various creator groups think he is anti-creator says more about the current positions of those creator groups than it does of Mr. Geist.

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