Obama and the Start of a New Copyright Regime...
President-elect Obama continues to look sincere in his campaign pledge to use the internet to improve government. Next up... reforming the nation's copyright regime.
Yesterday, on his transition team's website, Change.gov, he made a modification to the website's copyright policy. Without much fanfare or any media coverage, the site now uses a Creative Commons license, rather than the traditional command-and-control copyright, and this small change may signal a titanic shift in how our nation approaches the challenges of digital copyright law.
Here's why. You may not realize it, but legally, as you surf the Web everyday, you are not allowed to copy-and-paste text or download pictures off of a website without first getting the copyright owner's express permission, and this applies to content on both government and commercial websites. In reality, this makes basically all of us criminals; thus, people have been calling for reform of the law.
However, under the Creative Commons license, you are now free to copy, distribute, transmit, and even remix (or adapt) any of the content on the Change.gov website. This is significant because what the transition team chooses to make available to the public can now be legally shared between people after that fact. It may seem like common sense, yet it hasn't been the case up to this point.
While celebrating this decision towards a more open license that encourages an attitude of sharing content, advocate groups from both sides of the aisle including MoveOn.org and Newt Gingrich's American Solutions, not to mention legal scholar and copyright guru Lawrence Lessig, have released a letter suggesting a few additional changes as well. They call for...
- No legal barrier to sharing - As has just been done with the Change.gov website, "content made publicly available should be freely licensed so that citizens can share, excerpt, remix or otherwise redistribute this content without unnecessary complexity imposed by the law."
In other words, make it legal to copy and share digital works.
- No technological barrier to sharing - "A merely legal freedom to share and remix, however, can be thwarted by technological constraints. Content made publicly available should also be freely accessible, not blocked by technological barriers... For example, while content may be posted on a particular site such as YouTube, because YouTube does not authorize videos on its site to be downloaded, transition-created content should also be made available on a site that does permit downloads... There are a host of services — such as blip.tv — which not only enable users to download freely licensed content, but which also explicitly marks the content with freedom it carries. However else the transition chooses to distribute its content, it should assure that at least one channel maintains this essential digital freedom."
In other words, make sure that restrictive technologies don't get in the way of people sharing those digital works.
- Free Competition - "Governments should remain neutral in the marketplace of ideas. Transition-generated content should thus not be made publicly available in a way that unfairly benefits one commercial entity over another, or commercial entities over noncommercial entities... For example, if video of a press conference is made available in real time to television networks, it should at the same time be made accessible in a standard, universal format for download and sharing. If the transition chooses to make video accessible on YouTube, releasing the same video simultaneously in a standard, universal format will allow other video sites to syndicate that content as well... Ideally, that format should be nonproprietary. But so long as the content is freely licensed (Principle #1), and free access is secured (Principle #2), transcoding would not be inhibited. The transition would thus not be supporting one platform to the exclusion of others."
In other words, distribute those digital works in standard, universal formats to which everyone has equal access.
It shouldn't be hard to see why there are opponents lining up to make sure that this doesn't become a trend. The music and movie industries, in their decade-long efforts to fight piracy, have actually adopted strategies on the opposite side of all three of these principles. Those industries have fought the legalization of ANY copying of digital works (#1), they have fought to keep technological barriers to sharing in place, such as Digital Rights Management (DRM) Software (#2), and they have fought the legalization of distribution channels, like peer-to-peer software, that encourage the sharing of digital works, and to which everyone has equal access (#3).
I'm sure the Obama team doesn't intend to simply legalize all acts of blatant piracy. Even in a few years, if you download a Beatles song off the internet without paying for it, you'll still be putting yourself in trouble. However, the fact that Obama seems poised to break down the legal and technological barriers so that people can actually have free access to government documents is an overwhelmingly positive development. Not only will it lead to more openness and transparency in government, but it will completely undermine the entertainment industry's absurd claims that the sky will fall unless every cultural artifact is encrypted, and that the very fabric of civilization will somehow be destroyed if peer-to-peer networks are allowed to exist.