10.04.2009

information debate: copyright is obsolete

Both of my classes this term have a lecture component, in a large auditorium, and a small-class "tutorial" for discussion. I find it very annoying, since for two classes I have to be in the classroom on four separate occasions.

One of my tutorials is structured as a series of debates. From a list of topics, we each chose a proposition, and signed up to argue for or against. We meet with our debate partner to prepare, then engage in a formal debate for the class. Our own debate, plus participation in the rest of the debates, constitutes 15% of our grade for the course.

Most people seriously dislike this format, and wish the profs had decided on a discussion format instead. But I find it very interesting why most people feel this way: because they dread speaking in front of the class.

I understand that the fear of public speaking is widespread, but it's difficult for me to see speaking to a class of 20 people as public speaking. I'm fortunate that I conquered my fear of public speaking by doing it, repeatedly - and often baring very personal feelings to a large audience. So chatting in front of a class is not a big deal for me. But I see I am in the minority there!

The debate topics are drawn loosely from the week's reading. Some examples: "The internet is inherently ungovernable," "Information wants to be free," "'One Laptop per Child' is a neo-colonial Trojan horse," "We live in a surveillance society, "You have zero privacy anyway, get over it".

I've signed up for "Copyright is obsolete".

Turns out I'm lucky. One person switched to a different tutorial, so there are only three of us, rather than two teams of two. The professor said that two- or three-people groups should decide for themselves how they want to structure their debate, and our three-person team decided we will all debate both for and against. I like this!

I don't know if this will fly, but I'd like to open up comments to this topic. "Copyright is obsolete". For or against, and why?

33 comments:

James said...

Everbody always cuts Stewart Brand's quote short. It's:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

As for copyright, it's not obsolete, but it does need a serious overhaul. What's really obsolete is current mass-market information-based business models.

L-girl said...

In this case, there's no reason for the rest of the quote. It's just a jumping off point for debate. Not really even meant to be the quote.

L-girl said...

"As for copyright, it's not obsolete, but it does need a serious overhaul."

That's my position, but I put it in the affirmative: Copyright needs to be reformed, but it's still very important and should not be abolished.

Amy said...

Heh, so how can I NOT comment? If you need any resources, let me know. Of course, my knowledge is pretty much just US law, but the issues are likely the same world-wide.

One of the biggest problems, IMO, with current copyright law is how long it lasts (life plus 70 years in the US---I assume similarly in Canada). I still believe copyright protection is necessary (what would I teach if it were repealed?), but I think there are lots of ways in which it needs reform and clarification.

Let me know if you need some tips for research. I don't know how in depth your prep has to be.

L-girl said...

Come on you guys, you're basically giving a yes or no answer. Elaborate! (Please?)

Amy, thanks for the offer. I'm pretty much drowning in material now. If you had some wonderfully concise FAQ, I'd take it. Other than that, TMI already!

Amy said...

Concise? Law professors? LOL! I can look, but my guess is that you have found most of what I would find.

I am not sure how specific a statement or how detailed you want. I do not want to be obvious or overly simplistic. Ask me something specific, and I will give you my opinion.

James said...

I'm no expert on copyright, though I end up seeing a lot of Cory Doctorow's comments on the problems with it...

The big problem is the same as the big problem with so many other things: the companies that the laws are supposed to be regulating are themselves writing the laws. Copyright, especially in the US, is basically whatever Disney, the RIAA, and the MPAA can get out of the gov't. The most obvious aspect of that is the length of copyright, which is esentially defined as "long enough that Disney keeps copyright on Steamboat Willie".

US file copying penalties are currently higher than those for many felonies.

In the UK, there's a move to allow USPs to pull your Internet access if you're accused of copyright violation three times -- not if you're convicted, just accused.

Basically, copyright has to get back to what it was originally meant to do: provide protection to the creator of a work of art so that he or she has a chance to make a living off it -- not provide companies with a way of milking someone else's work in perpetuity.

Local example: My friend Nash the Slash released an album on Virgin in 1984 (all his other albums were self-published). When he started releasing his albums on CD, he wanted Children of the Night on CD as well, and asked Virgin if they'd release it. They said no: it wasn't going to be a money maker, so they wouldn't bother. So he asked them to sell the rights back to him. They said no: it might be a money maker, so they wanted to hold on to it.

M@ said...

I agree with Amy about the length of copyright. I wouldn't have a problem with copyright dying soon at the creator's death, or soon after. (Maybe publishers would try harder to give their writers a living wage that way! :) )

Copyright laws were, of course, written to protect physical items, and that this doesn't translate well to non-physical reproduction. But I don't have any idea how we can make that happen. I'd love to know what happens in the debate. As a creator and consumer, I have a vested interest in both sides.

One step in the right direction would be making public institutions respect copyright -- something that was completely reversed in the latest Canadian copyright bills. Schools would be allowed to use online content freely without the creator's permission unless this is expressly forbidden in the online source. (What "expressly forbidden" means is completely absent from the bill.) That means if I post an e-book on the web, and I don't say that you can't use this without permission, it could be legally downloaded, printed, and reproduced in every school in the country with no remuneration to me.

I don't know enough to comment on other parts of the bill, but this in particular is of great concern to me. If this is the example our schools will set, what will the wild world of capitalism and private consumption do!?

L-girl said...

Basically, copyright has to get back to what it was originally meant to do: provide protection to the creator of a work of art so that he or she has a chance to make a living off it -- not provide companies with a way of milking someone else's work in perpetuity.

Absolutely. And I have about a million stories like your friend's, as a writer and a writer's union activist.

But when I see the same argument - copyright now protects giant corporate distributors (not creators) - to call for its abolition, I feel that creators would lose even more.

L-girl said...

I wouldn't have a problem with copyright dying soon at the creator's death, or soon after.

I would oppose that. The copyright on a work may be all a creator has to leave his/her heirs. It could be his/her most valuable asset.

(Maybe publishers would try harder to give their writers a living wage that way! :) )

Oh yeah, I'm sure that will work. But will it be just before or after hell freezes over?

L-girl said...

Amy, thanks, but no specific questions.

impudent strumpet said...

I don't know anything about copyright, I just feel the need to express my sympathy for such a ridiculous class format. Formal debate sucks ass!

L-girl said...

Imp Strump, I had a feeling you'd agree! I purposely signed up for an early week to get it over with.

Amy said...

The interesting thing is that copyright was really not ever about protecting the rights of creators as its primary goal. Its primary goal was to encourage creative activity for the public good. Providing incentives to the creators was the means to that end, not the end in and of itself. From the first copyright statute back in 1710, there was always concern for protecting not just creators but distributors of material because that is how the public benefits---from distribution of the creative works.

So it is in fact entirely consistent with copyright goals and history to protect Disney, RIAA, MPAA, etc. Without them none of us would see the movies, hear the music, read the books, etc., that artists create.

That is not to say that these companies have not taken more than full advantage of their power, and Disney is a prime culprit and example of that excess.

I think copyright law is not obsolete but overly broad and overly long. Perhaps, however, the biggest problem today is that it is becoming more and more unenforceable. It is in that sense that it may be obsolete: not that it is not needed, but that it cannot be enforced.

L-girl said...

Thanks, Amy. That is very helpful.

The interesting thing is that copyright was really not ever about protecting the rights of creators as its primary goal. Its primary goal was to encourage creative activity for the public good. Providing incentives to the creators was the means to that end, not the end in and of itself.

I learned this in my reading, but didn't know how to express it clearly or succinctly in comments yesterday. But you did! Thanks. :)

I think copyright law is not obsolete but overly broad and overly long. Perhaps, however, the biggest problem today is that it is becoming more and more unenforceable. It is in that sense that it may be obsolete: not that it is not needed, but that it cannot be enforced.

I agree with this.

James said...

So it is in fact entirely consistent with copyright goals and history to protect Disney, RIAA, MPAA, etc.

Up to a point. When Disney created Steamboat Willie, they weren't doing it becaues they knew that they'd be deriving revenues from it 80+ years later; they created it because they wanted revenues over the next year or two. The studios didn't need long copyright protection to be encouraged to produce their material -- immediate revenues upon release were fine. Not to mention that that mouse character was just a knock-off of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit -- when Ub Iwerks walked away from Disney with the Oswald rights, Disney basically redrew the character with circular ears instead of long ears, called it a mouse, and made the same sort of cartoon Oswald had been starring in.

The BBC was so blase about the long-term value of their creations that many radio and TV programs were lost forever when the BBC decided it was more cost effective to re-use the tapes than expect future revenues from the works. Most of the early Doctor Who and Goon Show episodes are lost forever, and many of those that do exist have only been preserved because they were forgotten about in BBC Overseas Service vaults (some were found in the CBC building in Toronto!). Most of the Peter Cook & Dudley Moore show, Not Only... But Also... is lost for good. The bits that are left were collected in a 90-minute video tape called The Best Of... What's Left Of... Not Only... But Also....

Monty Python's Flying Circus, which turns 40 today, nearly met the same fate, and Spike Milligan's Q series, which is only slightly older, is mostly lost.

So 80+ year copyright protection is not necessary to encourage creativity, even from corporate studios. But it is sufficent to discourage creativity by letting them milk 80-year-old creations rather than come up with something new.

Some copyright trivia:

This may be apocryphal, but I've read that, when making Fantasia (1940), Disney wanted The Rite Of Spring for the dinosaur segment, but Igor Stravinsky wasn't interested in selling them the rights to use it. They responded that Russian copyright isn't enforcable in the US, so they were going to use it anyway.

This story is definitely not apocryphal: Nosferatu (1922), the first vampire movie, was a blatant copyright violation. Murnau took Bram Stoker's story and changed the characters' names (Dracula -> Orlok, Jonathan Harker -> Thomas Hutter, etc), but left everything else pretty much the same. Stoker's widow sued, won, and tried to have every copy destroyed, but fortunately some were saved. The movie was later remade by Werner Herzog in 1979 using the correct names, with Klaus Kinski as Dracula.

Amy said...

Glad that was helpful, Laura. Feel free to ask me questions, either here or by email. I do not profess to know anything beyond US copyright law, but I live and breathe this stuff day to day and am happy to help if I can. For example, if you want an example of a (US) copyright case that may support a point you wish to make, perhaps I can help locate one for you.

johngoldfine said...

I don't know anything about copyright, l-girl, but I do know about fear of public speaking.

You'd think that after teaching full-time for nearly 40 years that such fear was well in my past, but no.

Here I am pumping myself up before every class, muttering to my office mate: "Jesus H. Fuck. Cocksuck-errr. Showtime, baby. Stand and deliver! Pre-sent fucking arms! Smite the heathen, hip and thigh! Once more into the breach, dear friends. I'm Ted Fucking Williams. Gonna put the hurt on you! Grrr, grrr, motherfuck, bleah."

I do NOT suffer from Tourette's--just a little highly-professional self-help affirmation to get me off my ass, down the hall, into the classroom, and earning my pay!

FWIW, I think the debate format is lazy teaching in the guise of graduate-students-should-be-responsible-for-their-own-education. The hypenation is true enough but is not reached by recreating junior high.

Amy said...

That's great stuff, James. And I think we agree --- copyright protection is too long. We might differ on where to draw the line, but certainly life plus 70 or 95 years for corporate "authors" is far more than is needed to provide incentives for creation.

L-girl said...

Thanks, all!

Amy:

I do not profess to know anything beyond US copyright law, but I live and breathe this stuff day to day and am happy to help if I can. For example, if you want an example of a (US) copyright case that may support a point you wish to make, perhaps I can help locate one for you.

Thank you, this may be very helpful. I'm meeting with my team today, so if I come up with something specific enough to ask you, I'll let you know.

The debate isn't about the law per se, so I don't think US vs Canada will be problematic, as long as we say that's where the example is from.

Thanks again - I'll email you.

James said...

certainly life plus 70 or 95 years for corporate "authors" is far more than is needed

Of course, that touches on another serious problem of US law, corporate personhood -- but that's a whole other topic.

Yet another related issue is the state of patent law. Thanks to pressure from IT companies & others, you can now patent computer algorithms -- and even business techniques. The Amazon "one-click shopping" patent is probably the most famous example of that, but there are other even more ridiculous ones out there. Most can't stand up to a legal challenge, but those are expensive. Not to mention that it's quite common for companies to simply buy up obscure patents and sit in wait, like some trap-door spider, for someone to violate the patents so they can sue. Not a few companies derive their entire business model from that idea (which hasn't been patented).

We really need a massive overhaul of all legislation that's meant to stimulate and encourage the creation of ideas.

Amy said...

There is a case pending before the US Supreme Court this term on whether business method patents are permissible. It should be interesting to see how this business oriented majority resolves the issue. One could see it from both sides: they are good for business to the extent a business to monopolize an idea; they are bad for business as it impedes other businesses from using those ideas. I think, personally, they are a bad idea and not at all what Congress or the founders intended by "promoting science and the useful art."

L-girl said...

The Amazon "one-click shopping" patent is probably the most famous example of that, but there are other even more ridiculous ones out there.

I used to work for the law firm that defended this.

James said...

More copyright idiocy: IOC claims photographing Olympic venues violates copyright.

Amy said...

I can't imagine the basis of the IOC's claim. At least under US copyright law, there is no right to prevent others from taking photographs of architectural works (Section 120 of the US copyright statute).

Perhaps it is different elsewhere?

James said...

Perhaps it is different elsewhere?

No, it isn't different; it's a case of "assert control and hope no-one challenges you on it". Chicago did the same thing with Anish Kapoor's Cloud sculpture (aka "The Bean"): they announced that it was copyright and therefore illegal to photograph, so thousands of photographers descended on it and posted their pictures to Flickr.

Amy said...

Well, it is different with sculpture than architecture under US law. Photographing a sculptural work can be infringing, unless it can be argued to be fair use. But architectural works are treated differently. In fact, until 1990 buildings did not have copyright protection at all in the US, and when they finally extended such protection, it was subject to a number of limitations, including Section 120.

L-girl said...

Update: It turns out we're not all arguing on both sides. The group idea was only for the research - which no one did but me. (Gee thanks.)

So I'm arguing against "copyright is obsolete" on my own. I'm not looking forward to it - but I am looking forward to getting it over with.

L-girl said...

Update: It turns out we're not all arguing on both sides. The group idea was only for the research - which no one did but me. (Gee thanks.)

So I'm arguing against "copyright is obsolete" on my own. I'm not looking forward to it - but I am looking forward to getting it over with.

James said...

Photographing a sculptural work can be infringing, unless it can be argued to be fair use.

True, but this is public sculpture, owned by the city and displayed in a public park (Millennium Park, to be precise).

Amy said...

I know that---I've been there and photographed it myself. :)

Those facts don't really matter in terms of copyright law, except as they bear on a fair use defense. The sculptor still has rights, even if the city owns the actual sculpture, unless he assigned the copyright as well. And even if he did, the city as the copyright owner also has rights. There is likely a decent fair use defense, at least for some of the photographers (like for tourists like me), but that doesn't mean that there is not some potential claim for infringement. For example, if Coca Cola photographed the sculpture and used it in its marketing tools, I doubt very much a fair use defense would stand up. Whether a professional photographer depicting the sculpture as part of an art photo would fare better using fair use is a harder question, but not automatically a case of non-infringement.

James said...

For example, if Coca Cola photographed the sculpture and used it in its marketing tools, I doubt very much a fair use defense would stand up.

Fair enough. But what was happening in Chicago was, whenever someone took out a camera in the vicinity of the Bean, a cop would come by and tell them to put it away because they weren't allowed to photograph the thing.

It's really photogenic, too.

James said...

Another case of stupid (and doubtless invalid) application of copyright:

If the picture size is compressed or enlarged by using the 16:9 aspect ratio when the projector is used for profitable purpose or in the presence of an audience (for example, in a coffee shop or at a hotel etc.), it may infringe the rights of the copyright owner of the original picture.

Found at Boing Boing.