Saturday, July 30, 2005

 

Kill Copyright

posted by Corey Reid

I don't really mean that. But copyright has gotten wildly out of control, and somehow, someway, somebody has to put it down. So I'm stepping up. I'm not the brightest, I'm not the best, but I do have a sword.

"Copyright" ought to do what it says -- protect the right to copy.

That's COPY, not quote, or mock, or adapt, or make reference to (or even use of).

We have copyright so that artists don't LOSE money through bad people copying their work and selling it as an alternative to the "official" version. That is, David Bowie records an album and tries to sell it, only to discover that everyone's buying the CDs I'm burning in my basement. Copyright law makes sure that in such a case, where Mr Bowie has demonstratably lost sales, he gets paid.

This strikes me as a fine thing. It also strikes me as something that shouldn't go on forever. At some point, EVERYONE ought to get a chance to sell David Bowie CDs, regardless of what Mr. Bowie thinks about it. He makes his record, gets a fair chance to make some cash on it, and then it just becomes another batch of music anyone can do whatever they like with.

Cool? I think so. And that's pretty much how it works.

But something funny has happened. Copyright law has gotten both fatter and taller.

First off, it's obvious that eventually, copyright will be extended indefinitely. That means created works will NEVER become public domain, will NEVER be available for anyone to use. This is a problem. It means artists will never be able to use these works to develop their own stuff, not without paying whatever prices the copyright owner (who won't be the original artist, now long dead), wants to set. The word "artist" is preceded by the word "starving" sufficiently often that we won't folks don't need to have pictures drawn to understand what a bad place that is.

This is Mickey Mouse's fault. IF copyright is not extended to last indefinitely, then eventually Steamboat Willie (from 1928) will pass into the public domain, and from that point on, the rest of Disney's catalogue will stop generating such massive and reliable profits for the immense corporation that is Disney these days. Everytime we get close to seeing Mickey for free, a great hullabaloo sets up in Washington DC and they move the goalposts a few yards further down the field.

Somebody's gotta stop this. Seriously. This is out of control. At first copyright lasted a set number of years. Then it lasted until the death of the creator. Then it lasted till 50 years after the death of the creator (how does THAT make sense?), then 75. What's next?

Of course corporations now make sure the copyright to the works they profit on are in the name of the corporation. Not sure how you measure when a corporation dies.

Anyway, copyright is also getting extended OUTWARDS. Take the recent case in which Raincoast Books of Vancouver asked for AND RECEIVED a court injunction forbidding people from reading the copies of Harry Potter they had lawfully purchased, on the grounds that Ms. Rowling's copyright gave her the power to restrict the readership as she (and Raincoast) chose.

This has nothing to do with protecting Rowling's earnings from loss through unauthorized copying. This is just strong-arming the public to maximise revenues. The real danger, though, is that this case can now serve as a basis for yet further extension of the definition of copyright -- a definition that is already dangerously over-extended.

When libraries are unable to lend material, when schools cannot make use of educational matter, when computer manufacturers force users to use only the software THEY want them to use, when people die because pharmaceutical companies won't allow their patent drugs to be sold in a generic form in countries where nobody can afford the "brand name" version -- we have a problem.

There needs to be fair use, and fair access to information. There needs to be a flow of works into the public domain so that penniless artists (and surely we will always have those) can make use of them to develop their own art. If Shakespeare had been subject to copyright law many of his works could never have been written, as they draw heavily on other sources.

I feel moderately strongly about this. Frankly, I don't even think having to pay musicians to use their music in a movie makes sense -- it's not like anybody's going to buy the first season of Moonlighting INSTEAD of Let It Bleed, are they, so it's not like Mick et al are LOSING money because "You Can't Always Get What You Want" is playing in one episode. So why should they get paid? They're more likely to MAKE money, anyway, as people hear the song and say, "Hey, that rocks. I'm downloading that right now."

Well, okay, maybe they're not going to make a lot of money that way. But anyone who sees a strong future in BUYING recorded music isn't really paying attention to what's going on, are they?

Point is I think we'd all be better off, and less confused, and artists would be making more money, if copyright was scaled back and meant just what it means -- protection of the right to copy.

Some links:

The Lay-Person's Guide to Copyfighting

Cory Doctorow Interview

Access To Knowledge

The Geneva Declaration on the Future of the World Intellectual Property Organization

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