Given the amount of online piracy pervading the Internet today, one would think that the digital generation is nothing more than bands of thieves and miscreants. To combat their sticky-fingered ways, some copyright holders zealously use current copyright law to crack harshly down on infringers. Others, like sci-fi author and copyright activist, Cory Doctorow, blame the system, preferring an overhaul of copyright law. In his new book, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age, Doctorow suggest that copyright law, among many other things, need an overhaul to catch up with how we consume and distribute digital information.
Copyright law provides a powerful set of rights that give copyright holders a generous amount of control over how their work is seen. The copyright holder has the exclusive right:
- To reproduce the work;
- To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
- To distribute copies to the public;
- To publicly perform the work;
- To publicly display the work;
- To digitally transmit sound recordings.
Also, copyright is a no-fault law, meaning that violating any of these rights makes that person an infringer, regardless of whether the infringement is innocent. For example, assume Company Q buys a photo from a legitimate stock photo site for use on their product packaging. However, the person who sold the image to the stock photo site actually had stolen the photo. Even though the both the stock house and Company Q bought the photo legitimately, they are still both infringers.
The copyright traditionalists take full advantage of these rights, maintaining tight control over where and when their works are displayed; targeting infringers and using takedown requests and legal action whenever necessary.
The Doctorow camp takes a more liberal approach to internet piracy. Copyrighted works should be freely distributable for those not making a profit off the work. Doctorow believes that the problem lies with a system that puts the power and profit in the hands of the ones controlling the digital platform, not in the hands of the creators. Copyright law has been absconded by the larger business interests, leaving the creators with little control and even smaller profits. Rather than focus on controlling every use of the work, the focus should be on controlling the industries. The pyramid is upside down with creators at the bottom.
In a recent NPR interview, Doctorow explained his concern this way: “For me the concern is whether or not the money that’s spent when we buy things on the Internet goes mostly to the creators and then to their investors and then to the platforms. Or whether as it is today, the platforms have the whip hand and the investors can extract monopoly rents from the creators and then the creators sort of sit at the bottom of the barrel.”
Nothing exemplifies the corporate control more than digital rights management (DRM), in which companies use digital locks to control content distribution. “In 1998, we passed this law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the DMCA, and what it says is that it is against the law to remove a lock even if you own the copyright to the work the copyright is protecting. So one of the publishers right now has said they’ve always insisted on digital locks on their e-books, and they’re in a pricing dispute with Amazon who wants to take more of the money that they are generating through their books,” explains Doctorow. “Under normal circumstances, if Amazon decided not to sell Hachette’s books, you would expect Hachette to say to all the people who want to read J.K Rowling or Amanda Palmer’s new book, “Here’s a tool that lets you convert your e-books to run on iBooks or on Google Play or on Kobo or on Nook. Go ahead and just switch to someone else’s store, and buy your books there.” But because only Amazon is allowed to unlock Hachette’s books, even though Hachette controls the copyright, Amazon controls the lock. Amazon now runs that negotiation. They have all the negotiating leverage, and what happens is the rightful share of the investor is expropriated by the platform.”
The tech sector abounds with nonsensical rules based in copyright protection; rules that the content creators don’t agree. For example, some DVD’s or Blue Rays can’t be played on TV’s without the proper lock or region encoding. Recording a show on a DVR to watch on an HDTV, doesn’t allow that the buyer to watch his purchase on an iPad. Linking to a photo on social media is not an infringement, because technically it isn’t being copied or distributed, But copy the photo and upload it the same social media site and the person is an infringer.
According to Doctorow, we should acknowledge that people always find ways to get things for free. He says, “they’ve done that for as long as there have been libraries or people singing on street corners. The interesting thing for me, as a creator, is how do I ensure that my share of the money that people spend is as large as possible?” Letting someone lock your work isn’t necessarily the best way to accomplish that. According to Doctorow’s Law, “Anytime someone puts a lock on something you own, against your wishes, and doesn’t give you the key, they’re not doing it for your benefit. Once we give up on the idea of applying copyright to normal people and we limit it to the industry, we know how to regulate the industry because we know where they all live. In Doctorow’s world, that is better for the creator and better for the consumer.
Overall, Doctorow’s book is fast paced and easy to absorb, touching on much more than can be stated here. He looks at the Internet’s inner workings, the easy in which intellectual property can be stolen, and how it affects creators. There are many opportunities for creators in the digital age and pitfalls to watch out for. And by looking at failed models or models destined to fail, he makes a convincing case for the direction we must head.
Given the state of politics, it may take a while before we see some of the global changes Doctorow envisions although not everything requires dramatic upheaval. Much can be done individually. However, changes, big, or small can’t happen without the public being informed and reading this book is a good way to accomplish that task. For now, though, don’t expect any major changes to copyright lLaw. Congress has no plans for it, and given the lobbying power the industry leaders; the publishing houses, stock photo companies, music publishers, and movie studios, liberalizing copyright institutionally will be an uphill battle. If those interests have their way, we probably won’t see any major copyright law reform until around 2021, when bills come to the floor looking to extend the copyright duration before the copyright for Mickey Mouse expires.