Copyright Reform: Stop, Thief!

Aug 23, 2009

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.

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