Copyright’s PR Problem

Festa dei Pirati 20-03-2010: stickering
Creative Commons License photo credit: festadeipirati2010

Copyright is practically a four-letter word in the digital age. All you have to do is a Twitter search for the word and you’ll find hundreds of people with various gripes and concerns about copyright.

The main perception of copyright most of these authors have is that copyright is working against them and preventing them from doing things that they want to do, whether post a YouTube clip with suspect audio, share files or something else.

Sometimes the gripes are legitimate, such as when people have trouble moving content they legally own from one format to another. Sometimes the gripes are less so, just someone unwilling to pay for a song or movie. But it is clear that, at least from the perception of someone casually surfing the Web, copyright has turned into a war against consumers and is all but an act of tyranny.

Of course, the reality of copyright is much more complex than that. While there are flaws and issues with copyright law, the law is not nearly as oppressive as many make it seem. However, the image people have of copyright can and will eventually have an impact on the law itself, making it important that we take a serious look at copyright’s image and what can be done to bring it more in line with reality.

The Police Analogy

Copyright’s image issues are actually similar to those faced by the police. Though the comparison of copyright to the police may be an unfortunate one, especially considering how derogatory the term “copyright cop” is, the analogy is still a fitting one.

When a police officer is writing speeding tickets or otherwise enforcing small, common crimes. They are despised, avoided and entire books are written about how escape them. Things are even worse in the rare cases where police officers abuse their power or cross the line. These incidents are spread across the Internet, fanning flames of hatred against the police.

Yet, if there’s a break in, mugging or worse, most will not hesitate to call the police and get help.

The problem is that, for most people, the majority of their police interactions are the first kind, not the second. You are many times more likely to have a police officer write you a ticket for speeding than have one catch the guy who stole your TV.

The same holds true for copyright, though the law is there to protect everyone, most people are directly affected by having their YouTube clips muted (sometimes by mistake) or warnings for file sharing. Not by having their works protected.

In short, the image of copyright is based almost solely upon what it prevents people from doing, not what it enables or the protections it gives every content creator, large and small.

Some Real Problems With Copyright

This focus on what copyright prevents is, of course, only a part of the issue. Copyright law also has some very real problems that need to be addressed. These include:

  1. Out of Date: Copyright law is hopelessly out of date with current technology and there is little chance to get caught up.
  2. Abuses of Law: Many copyright holders have abused the law. This includes everything from false takedown notices to lawsuits that do not match the alleged misdeeds and border on extortion. Though these are relatively rare, they are widely publicized, often by design of the abuser.
  3. Overly Restrictive: The current term of copyright is excessively long and actually hurts copyright holders by creating the orphan works issue. DRM circumvention and weak, unpredictable fair use provisions give far too much power to copyright holders, especially large ones, in many areas.
  4. Bias Toward Large Copyright Holders: Under the current system, especially in the U.S., only large copyright holders can afford to enforce their rights in court. Between registration fees, attorneys and court costs, large copyright holders have nearly all the power.

There are other issues, of course, but these are some of the biggest issues that have been raised repeatedly that are legitimate complaints.

However, the overall idea of copyright is still solid. The idea that authors and creators, who spend time and money creating works for others to enjoy deserve rights over those works and renumeration for their efforts still makes sense.

That idea of authors retraining control over work is what made the Statute of Anne so different 300 years ago and why the idea is still valid today.

But to keep that idea, we have to stop looking at just what copyright prevents and also look at what it enables.

A More Robust Conversation

A one-sided conversation on copyright does no good. Those who depend on copyright as part of their living need to turn the conversation around from being just one about the things you can’t do because of copyright to one about what it enables everyone to do.

After all, every human being, with almost no exception, is both a consumer and a creator of copyrighted works. If you take photos, write blog posts or fix any work of creative authorship into a tangible medium of expression, you are a copyright holder.

Copyright protects those works under the same rules it does major motion pictures and best-selling albums. Though money certainly aids in that protection, knowledge and information is more important.

This is why, when people complaint to me about copyright law and talk about abolition, I immediately shift the conversation to the rights they would lose in their own work without it. I don’t know if I’ve won any hearts or minds, but the conversations have always taken a different tone. Most, it seems, either don’t know or don’t think about the rights they have in their own work.

This, in my experience, has always been more effective in discouraging activities such as file sharing than threats of lawsuits. Mention a huge lawsuit and most people don’t believe that they can get caught. However, remind people that copyright is a two-way street and others would be able to do to their work what they are doing to others and most begin to seriously about their approach.

If copyright holders want to get people to support their rights, the first step is to remind the world that everyone is in this together and that, while copyright does restrict what one can do with other’s content, it also protects their own.

Bottom Line

Much like with the police analogy, though railing against copyright and the excesses of it is popular on the Web and people are understandably hesitant to grant more power to the institution, very few are seriously talking about getting rid of it altogether.

There is a very real need for copyright reform, both to modernize and rebalance the law, but the big idea of copyright remains valid and very important, perhaps even more so now that more people than ever are involved in the creation of creative works.

However, such efforts to update the law productively will be hindered greatly so long as the public attitude toward copyright is so overwhelmingly negative and large copyright holders, including the MPAA and the RIAA, make this an “us vs. them” battle.

It’s time to realize that we’re all copyright holders and consumers. We all have a stake in this from both sides. If we approach the issue from that mindset, it may not be easier to decide on the exact reforms we need, but it will be easier to get all sides involved talking.

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