Life before a watching world: own your words

Whether online or in real life, I never communicate with the expectation that my words will remain private. If someone has something I have written or said, they are free to use it as they see fit. As a result, I try never to write or say things that I would not want to stand behind if they became known.

This does not mean that everything I say or write is intended for public consumption. I will say things to close friends that I would prefer other people not hear, for the sake of not hurting feelings or not giving unnecessary offense or not having to explain myself to people who don’t know me well enough. And I will also speak freely, though not as freely, to people who aren’t as close but whose character I trust. But I never ask for confidentiality, and I never expect it. Instead, I entrust the listener with what I have said, knowing that they might have their own reasons for passing on what I’ve said to people to whom I would have not told those things directly. And when that happens (and I know about it), then I swallow hard and deal with whatever consequences those words bring.

I suppose at this point I should say that, even though in principle I am mostly opposed to the concept of intellectual property (I think), in practice I have no problem with folks who claim intellectual property rights, and in fact I have no qualms about asserting such rights myself as a practical matter. For example, even though I consider the words I write on this weblog to be in the public domain and freely usable by others, I would have no problem copyrighting a book I had written, or using that copyright to make a profit from that book. I don’t think that a system of intellectual property rights is wicked, just one that on balance does more harm than good. But it is part of the system we currently live by, and I am long since resigned to compromising my ideals on a regular basis in order to do things that need to be done.

I bring this up in order to make my next point, namely that I think it unwise to use intellectual property rights as a way to control the spread of one’s words. There is only one honest reason to do this, namely when someone else is using your intellectual property in a way that will deprive you of payment for it; either they ought to be paying you for its use and aren’t, or they are distributing it for free to people who ought to be paying you for its use. But I have seen several times where people have tried to use intellectual property rights as a bullying tactic, insisting that they not be quoted or that an email they sent to a person not be published by that person, not to preserve their right to make money from the material but to prevent the material from being made public. This is disingenuous, and everyone who sees it knows it.

There are at least two ways I know of to legitimately control the spread of one’s words, only one of which I recommend. The first, which I don’t recommend, is to get the recipient to agree in advance that those words will be kept confidential. The second, which I recommend and try to adhere to myself, is to avoid the problem entirely by keeping such words to myself to begin with. There may be situations where I would think it was vital that I say or write something to someone that I absolutely would not want repeated. But I haven’t yet run into such a situation. And those times when I think I have, it is usually because I’ve assigned way too much significance to my own opinion; after a second or at most a third thought, I realize that the intended recipient can likely get along without them.

This is only a rule of thumb, and I will not be surprised to run into the situation where I need to share words confidentially. But if it exists, it must be fairly rare since I haven’t encountered it yet. Meanwhile, this rule has kept me from saying and writing many rash things. And, maybe more important, on the few occasions when something I thought would be kept private was later made public, I was able to stand behind what I said before a watching world.

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