Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Reforming the Copyright Reformation...

The greatest internet political issue on the agenda is not the regulation of pornography, free speech, or taxes - it's copyright law, hands-down. To anyone who's ever downloaded music, looked at someone else's pictures, posted their own, or done, well, everything that most of us do, you should be aware of what's at stake.

Without getting too legalistic, understand this: The idea of copyright law has always been to protect the creators of material so that they'd be willing to add their creations to our common culture. For example, when J.K. Rowling writes a Harry Potter book, copyright law forbids others from making photocopies of its pages and selling or distributing them. BUT, at the same time, copyright law does permit some "Fair Use" exceptions to this rule - educators can make limited copies to spur classroom discussion, journalists can quote parts of the book for news reporting and public commentary, and late-night talk show hosts can use its contents for parody. Additionally, after a few decades, the book enters what's called the public domain, where nobody can claim a copyright on it anymore.

Then the internet "introduced two critical changes: it made it easier for folk-users of copyright to find each other and spread their creations and copies farther than ever, and it made it easier for enforcers to find them and threaten them".

But the bottom line remains that copyright law is ultimately intended to enhance our common culture.

Famous blogger, Cory Doctorow, has a must-read article in The Guardian today in which he argues that copyright law needs to distinguish between commercial and cultural uses. He accurately points out that every single one of us "copies" ideas, or learns, from other people. As corporations attempt to "strengthen" copyright law by using technology to limit and control how creative material can be used, they not only turn all of us into criminals, but ultimately diminish our shared culture.

Too often this issue is framed by the mainstream media as one between internet piracy anarchists versus authors or musicians who just want to earn a living off their work. But that's a false depiction. The cause here is not making everything on the internet free, but in reforming copyright law so that the activities that all of us do (and have done for decades) don't suddenly define us as criminals.

Doctorow recommends the creation of a new copyright regime "that reflects the age-old normative consensus about what's fair and what isn't at the small-scale, hand-to-hand end of copying, display, performance and adaptation". As corporations try to reform the law to "strengthen" their positions, the true cultural need is for legal reform that brings the focus back to the issue of basic fairness.


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