CRF Blog

Copywrong

by Bill Hayes

In Copywrong for the Columbia Journalism Review, Patricia Aufderheide reviews two books on copyright and fair use: The Copyright Wars: Three Centuries of Trans-Atlantic Battle by Peter Baldwin and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age by Cory Doctorow.

Baldwin … argues that copyright has expanded to cover too much work for too long — which is hard to argue with now that it lasts 70 years after the death of an author. But he might also have noted that this protection is purely theoretical: Most works can be downloaded illegally within a few minutes of their release, if not before. The current situation is worse than Baldwin thinks: We now have a system that offers the worst of both worlds, preventing the re-use of old work without actually protecting creators.

Oddly, Baldwin has an easier time unpacking 19th-century legal debates than he does understanding the current copyright conflict between the media business and Silicon Valley — which is mostly just a business dispute framed in the loftiest possible terms. He identifies a “pleasant coincidence of interests” between copyright critics and tech companies — quite an understatement given that the latter often bankroll the former. (Google, for instance, has supported Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, among other organizations.) The real conflict, just as in Dickens’ day, is between authors and their representatives on one side and those who would profit from distributing their work without compensating them on the other; just as in Dickens’ day, both copyright champions and critics still dress up their own interests in high-minded appeals. Baldwin also suggests that most culture is produced by businesses and universities as opposed to the independent artists envisioned by the shapers of copyright law, but those institutions often depend on people who depend on copyright. (This review, for example, is funded by a university but written by a freelance journalist who very much needs to get paid.) As Baldwin himself acknowledges, the “salaried intelligentsia … rallied behind the digital ideology.” The key word here is surely “salaried” — would professors be so sanguine if tenure, rather than copyright, were at risk? [more]

Debates over intellectual property can be fascinating. CRF, along with Street Law, has created Educating About Intellectual Property, a web site with free lessons on current issues of intellectual property.