September 13, 2006

Cory Doctorow on How Copyright Broke

Cory Doctorow gives some sensible commentary on copyright in the latest Locus magazine, reprinted on the Locus website.

If I may quote a largish chunk:

But customers understand property — you bought it, you own it — and they don't understand copyright. Practically no one understands copyright. I know editors at multibillion-dollar publishing houses who don't know the difference between copyright and trademark (if you've ever heard someone say, "You need to defend a copyright or you lose it," you've found one of these people who confuse copyright and trademark; what's more, this statement isn't particularly true of trademark, either). I once got into an argument with a senior Disney TV exec who truly believed that if you re-broadcasted an old program, it was automatically re-copyrighted and got another 95 years of exclusive use (that's wrong).

So this is where copyright breaks: When copyright lawyers try to treat readers and listeners and viewers as if they were (weak and unlucky) corporations who could be strong-armed into license agreements you wouldn't wish on a dog. There's no conceivable world in which people are going to tiptoe around the property they've bought and paid for, re-checking their licenses to make sure that they're abiding by the terms of an agreement they doubtless never read. Why read something if it's non-negotiable, anyway?

The answer is simple: treat your readers' property as property. What readers do with their own equipment, as private, noncommercial actors, is not a fit subject for copyright regulation or oversight. The Securities Exchange Commission doesn't impose rules on you when you loan a friend five bucks for lunch. Anti-gambling laws aren't triggered when you bet your kids an ice-cream cone that you'll bicycle home before them. Copyright shouldn't come between an end-user of a creative work and her property.

Of course, this approach is made even simpler by the fact that practically every customer for copyrighted works already operates on this assumption. Which is not to say that this might make some business-models more difficult to pursue. Obviously, if there was some way to ensure that a given publisher was the only source for a copyrighted work, that publisher could hike up its prices, devote less money to service, and still sell its wares. Having to compete with free copies handed from user to user makes life harder — hasn't it always?
In other words, copyright should balance the needs of creators and consumers, without tipping on the creators' side. If anything, consumers should get the benefit of the doubt. Does this make it harder for creators to earn a living from their works? I guess so, and this is where I may be a little less libertarian than Doctorow, but the reality of the situation is that the tech won't go away. The creators that make the most money on their works in the will be the ones that adapt the fastest and the best. Another area we may diverge: I really do still think that creators should be the ones who choose to make their works freely available. Ethical consumers won't make the choice for them.

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