Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Copyright and the Internet

The Op-Ed piece titled "Would the Bard Have Survived the Web?" tries to make the case for copyright.

An obvious problem with this piece is that the primary example cuts against the value of copyright. When the Globe Theater was built, it marked the start of a golden age for drama, despite the lack of copyrights at the time. When the theater shut down, it marked the end of the golden age, despite the fact that a copyright law had been passed in the mean time. The obvious conclusion is that what playwrights need most is not copyright law, but professional theaters to perform their works.

A more serious flaw, in my view, is that the authors consider only half of the picture. They warn:
[Progress is] the result of abiding by rules that were carefully constructed and practices that were begun by people living in the long shadow of the Dark Ages. We tamper with those rules at our peril.
But the rules have been tampered with, at the behest of copyright holders. The U.S. Constitution specifies that Congress may write laws that protect intellectual property "for limited times," but these days copyrights rarely expire; instead the laws are changed to increase the length of the copyright protection. In the wake of Citizen United, the odds of works like the early Micky Mouse cartoons ever entering the public domain are less than ever. The anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act extend the reach of intellection property law in a variety of ways, in particular interfering with the "fair use" that has traditionally been allowed under copyright law.

In short, the bargain implicit in copyright is being undermined from both sides. Copyright owners are winning most of the legislative battles, demonstrating that special interests with a lot of money at stake can often prevail over broad interests of the public at large. On the other side, consumers are doing massive amounts of copying of copyrighted works, and probably most of this is not fair use excerpts or works created 60 years ago.


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