Until about a year ago, like most people, I never paid much attention to copyright law. Sure, I remember Napster. And I knew the recording, film, and publishing industries were constantly complaining about what the web had done to their businesses. But that was about it. Whatever notions I had were old fashioned and based mainly on my experiences as a musician and songwriter long before there were personal computers.
And then I got tangled in the readable web. Browsing around, I discovered law professor James Boyle’s book The Public Domain in a free PDF edition and I started reading. About one chapter into it, I discovered that it was also available from Feedbooks.com where I was able to create a PDF to match the size of the screen on my iRex 1000S; the iRex being a true book-sized open platform e-reader where I can store books that I actually own and that Amazon can’t decide to take away. 😉
Feedbooks and the iRex made the text easier on my eyes, and then James Boyle’s words began to open them. Since then, I’ve read quite a lot about copyright. If you care about the future of reading and living in a free and open society, there are a lot of things about copyright law that are deeply disturbing.
Just Who Is Stealing From Who, Here?
To bring up just one of the bizarre and outrageous situations copyright law has put us in, here’s a passage explaining the problem of “orphan” works:
Go to the Library of Congress catalog. It is online at http://catalog.loc.gov/. This is an astounding repository of material—not just books and periodical, but pictures, films, and music. The vast majority of this material, perhaps as much as 95 percent in the case of books, is commercially unavailable. The process happens comparatively quickly. Estimates suggest that a mere twenty eight years after publication 85 percent of the works are no longer being commercially produced. (We know that when U.S. copyright required renewal after twenty-eight years, about 85 percent of all copyright holders did not bother to renew. This is a reasonable, if rough, guide to commercial viability.)
Yet because the copyright term is now so long, in many cases extending well over a century, most of twentieth-century culture is still under copyright; copyrighted but unavailable. Much of this, in other words, is lost culture. No one is reprinting the books, screening the films, or playing the songs. No one is allowed to. In fact, we may not even know who holds the copyright. Companies have gone out of business. Records are incomplete or absent. In some cases, it is even more complicated. A film, for example, might have one copyright over the sound track, another over the movie footage, and another over the script. You get the idea. These works—which are commercially unavailable and also have no identifiable copyright holder—are called “orphan works.” They make up a huge percentage of our great libraries’ holdings. For example, scholars estimate that the majority of our film holdings are orphan works. For books, the estimates are similar. Not only are these works unavailable commercially, there is simply no way to find and contact the person who could agree to give permission to digitize the work or make it available in a new form.
Problems like these rate some attention, I’d say. A few days ago I added Copyfight to the “Linkworthy” blogroll here on this site. There you’ll find lots of good links and steady coverage of the latest inanities from the world of Copyright law.
On it’s home page, Copyfight says this:
Here we’ll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates — and will recreate — the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we’ll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.
Why Copyfight? Well, on a page titled What’s A Copyfighter?, it says, among other things:
“…If ‘copyfighter’ means ‘one who fights against bad copyright laws (and for smarter business practices),’ then I am a copyfighter.”
And so too, it would seem, am I.
As its extensive archives will attest, Copyfight was at one time home to several writers on copyright and Intellectual Property. But they have moved on. Today, the blog is the product of a lone-eagle, Dr. Alan Wexelblat. I’ve been subscribing via RSS for awhile and the site has consistently offered an honest and sober minded window on events and ideas that will have a great impact on what we read, where we can read it, and how much we pay to do so in the years to come. Not the end all and be all on the subject by any stretch, but worth a feed and a read.
In no time at all, I’ll bet you’ll be a Copyfighter, too.