Battling Copyright Ignorance

7340 - Moscow - Bolotnaya Proshad - Children are the victims of adults' vices - Indifference
Creative Commons License photo credit: thisisbossi

A recent study out of the UK found some striking numbers when it comes to copyright understanding and compliance in the country.

First, it found that 50 percent of men and 38 percent of women had never paid for any online content. Furthermore, sixty percent of adults said that they felt musicians shouldn’t be paid when their music is downloaded on the Web and the number increased when asked about TV producers and filmmakers.

However, what was most striking to me was the number of people who didn’t understand copyright law and how it works on the Web. Three-quarters of the people who responded said that they felt they had no rights to the work they posted on the Web and over half said that anything on the Web was basically a “free for all”.

Though the study comes from a potentially biased source, namely Telindus, a network solutions provider that deals with piracy issues as part of their business, the responses to these questions seem believable to me. In the four years that I’ve run Plagiarism Today, the one thing that has held consistent has been a lack of understanding about copyright law by the majority of people I meet.

This, more than anything, has been the root of the copyright strife on the Internet and has created much of the headache that Webmasters and users deal with on a daily basis. Furthermore, it represents one of the greatest failures of all sides of the copyright debate and is something that must be addressed before any solutions or reforms can be enacted.

The Nature of the Problem

Copyright has been in the news as it relates to the Web for nearly ten years. The first time most people hear the word “copyright” used in conjunction with something on the Internet dealt with the Napster case, which unfolded between late 1999 and 2001. Many will remember the “Napster Bad!” series of online cartoons that rose to popularity by lampooning Metallica, which had sued Napster in 2000 (after the RIAA had already filed suit).

Since then there has been dozens of other major copyright news stories. The RIAA lawsuits against individual file sharers, which includes the Jammie Thomas case and the Joel Tenenbaum case, The Pirate Bay trial, The Grokster case, The Shepard Fairey lawsuit over the “Hope” poster and the list goes on. This doesn’t count the lesser-known cases that also drew mainstream media attention, such as The Lane Hartwell controversy and the Lara Jade Case among others.

Despite all of this news coverage and a PR push by all sides, very little, if any, progress has been made in terms of educating the public. Part of this is because those in the news have taken a greater interest in name calling and pontificating than providing actual information. They are trying to win their cases, both in the courts and in the courts of public opinion, not save the world from copyright ignorance.

However, average net users can hardly be blamed for not understanding copyright law. Up until about 15 years ago, most people lacked the technology and resources to commit a major copyright infringement. Smaller ones, such as dubbing rented VHS tapes for personal use, were rarely enforced. Copyright has not been taught in schools, unless one goes to college and gets an appropriate degree (law, journalism, advertising, etc.) and through most of the law’s history, the average layperson has had no reason to be aware of it.

In short, laypeople walked on to the Web, essentially becoming publishers, without any understanding of the rules of the game. Then, they found themselves in the middle of a war where they don’t know what is being fought over beyond the propaganda coming from both sides.

Now many are taking sides without a full picture of what they are fighting for, or against.

Preaching to the Choir

I recognize well that, when I blog here about copyright issues I am, essentially, preaching to the choir. Yes, some who disagree with me read this site, but for the most part this site seems to attract readers who are at least aware of the basics of copyright law and are looking to protect, track and/or license their content.

However, I am reminded of how unique this audience when I go to a conference or social function and mention what I do. It seems that, at many of these events, the way to be popular is to have answers to copyright questions. Unfortunately, most of the questions are very basic and could have easily been answered by a cursory read of the U.S. Copyright Office’s site or even a copyright myths page.

For the most part these are bright, intelligent people that are very skilled in their fields. But they are woefully unknowledgeable about copyright, even as they publish to the Web, use other people’s content and have their work copied.

This creates two separate problems on the Web. First, most people are not aware of their rights in their own works. the second is that they unintentionally infringe upon the rights of others. Both of these things cause strife and frustration with the current system and often cause people to lash out without fully understanding what is going on.

You can see this if you search for “copyright AND YouTube” on Twitter. When videos are taken down or are blocked internationally due to licensing agreements, users seem to blame YouTube or copyright law itself. There is little understanding of why the videos are taken down/restricted and even less understanding about how to avoid these issues.

When it comes to copyright law, it seems that many are more likely to lash out either at the law itself or those required to enforce it. This is true even when a simple understanding of the rules and small change in behavior could have avoided the incident completely.

This goes on to fuel much of the hatred on both sides of the copyright debate and works to prevent real dialog form taking place or real progress from being made.

Bottom Line

In the end, any and all copyright reform, if it is going to work, needs to be built on the back of a robust understanding of the existing law. Those who fight without understanding risk creating a far worse environment but no widespread reform can or will happen without strong support from the people.

Intelligent people with a robust understanding of the law can, should and do disagree on what the future of copyright law should look like. However, when they have fought for the hearts and minds of those unfamiliar with the law, they have done so largely with buzzwords, slick marketing campaigns and big promises, not actual information.

This is why I’ve started keeping a copy of the Copyright Office’s “Copyright Basics” PDF on a thumb drive everywhere I go. I give it to anyone who has questions about copyright law as a relatively quick way to get a good baseline understanding. The fact the PDF is in the public domain doesn’t hurt either.

Without this understanding, we’re like a city full of drivers that has no understanding of what the rules of traffic are, constantly getting more and more heated over the congestion and accidents and fighting on how to best reform the system. Copyright rage, much like road rage, is unproductive, especially when it doesn’t come with an understanding of the laws involved.

We have to fight that ignorance before anything can improve and that will be a battle fought one person at a time.

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