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Copyright and Internet Piracy

2317 New Editions from Amazon by Decades

Our Lost Culture: What We Lose From Having Killed The Public Domain

Yesterday, for Copyright Week, we wrote about transparency (and the lack of it in making copyright law). Today's issue is the public domain. While we just wrote about the lack of new works going into the public domain this year (as happens every year in the US), I've seen some copyright maximalists asking why this is a big deal, since all the works listed are readily available to purchase. This is uninformed in the extreme. In the past I've suggested that everyone interested in these issues owes it to themselves to read James Boyle's excellent book, The Public Domain, and I'll reiterate that recommendation now. Not surprisingly, the book is available online for free, though you can also purchase a copy, which is a worthwhile investment. 

However, the damage that our missing public domain does to culture, society, learning and knowledge is quite incredible. Two years ago, we had mentioned some research done by Professor Paul Heald, in which he noticed an incredible thing about new books available from Amazon, showing that plenty of recent new books were available, but they fade quickly... until you hit 1922 (the basic limit, before which nearly all works are in the public domain). And then there's a sudden jump in the works available.

See that big gap? All of that is lost culture thanks to our restrictive copyright laws, and the 1976 Act's ability to effectively kill off the public domain in the US. It should be seen as highly problematic that there are more books from the 1880s available for sale on Amazon than books from the 1980s. 

Since then, Prof. Heald has continued to do even more research into the public domain and how it's distorted our cultural output and made much of it disappear, going beyond just books, but also exploring the impact on music. In an even more recent paper, a draft of a book chapter, Prof. Heald again dives into the issue of the way copyright law has distorted the availability of culture. He takes that earlier chart, and then decides to compare the "new books" available on Amazon with "used books" available on ABE books (the most popular marketplace for used books), and shows the market distortions clearly.

In the paper, Heald also makes the case that the arguments against the public domain don't make much sense. The idea that works would be "under exploited" because they convey no ownership is simply not supported by the data - as seen above. Similarly, the idea of works being "over exploited" because "anyone can do anything with them" seems just silly. It's a misunderstanding of the "tragedy of the commons," and there appears to be little empirical research to support the idea that there's any real problem here. 

As a related matter, we've pointed in the past to research concerning copyright renewal rates, as found in William Patry's excellent book, Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars. Prior to the 1976 Act, copyright holders not only had to register, but they also had to "renew" their copyright after 28 years if they wanted a second 28 years of protection. And yet, in 1958 and 1959, very few works were actually renewed.

In fact, as you can see, with the exception of movies, the vast majority of copyright holders in every other area were actually fine with letting their works fall into the public domain after 28 years. And yet, for reasons that are still unexplained, we now automatically give them life plus 70 additional years, even though all of the evidence suggests they neither need nor want that level of protection, and that such levels of protection appear to make their works significantly less available. 

And none of that even touches on the nature of creativity, and the way in which amazing new works often borrow and build upon the works of those who came before them. The greatest works of Shakespeare were more or less copied from others - but he was able to make them into something special. Why is that such a problem? If someone can make use of the work of someone else who failed to make it spectacular, and turn it into something amazing, why are we precluding that possibility? The entire purpose of copyright law in the US was supposed to be about enabling greater dissemination of learning and knowledge, and that's by increasing the public domain. Yet, instead, because of regulatory capture, and the ability of gatekeepers to hijack the process, we've created a copyright law that does exactly the opposite. It restricts the dissemination of knowledge, decreases cultural sharing and availability, and generally harms creators and their ability to build on culturally relevant works. 

What defenders of restrictive copyrights often fail to recognize is that the public domain is what made culture culture. Culture is a shared concept, in which lots of people are all experiencing the same or similar things - and making it their own as a part of that. We used to share stories, retell jokes, build on and change the works of others, and it was that shared effort that built culture and helped it spread. But copyright law has changed all that. Rather than a true cultural phenomenon, where culture is built up by the public in terms of what they create, share and build upon, we now have a situation where the gatekeepers decide what culture is, push it on everyone via broadcast means, and then tell us not to do anything about it... unless we pay exorbitant sums. That's a perverse understanding of how culture happens, and one that does not benefit creators or the public (often one and the same), but is hugely beneficial for a few gatekeepers. 
For a robust creative community and culture, it is important to bring back a healthy respect for the public domain.


Questions for discussion:

  1. Do you buy books, movies or music, or you prefer to download everything for free, if it’s possible?
  2. Do you think that books are too expensive nowadays? How high should the prices be?
  3. Do you agree with the author of the article that too restrictive copyright laws damage the culture, because they harm the dissemination of information and new ideas?
  4. In the USA prior to the 1976 Act, copyright holders not only had to register, but they also had to "renew" their copyright after 28 years if they wanted a second 28 years of protection. And yet, in 1958 and 1959, very few works were actually renewed. Now in most countries copyright term length is authors' lifetime plus 70 years after their deaths. Do you agree that it would be more reasonable to make authors renew their copyright every 28 years?
  5. What do you think about internet piracy?
  6. “Real property” is not missing when copying. Is copying theft?
  7. If a person copied a book or music, but didn’t exploit it commercially, can we still consider it theft?
  8. When a user buys a song from ITunes, the author gets only about 8% of the track’s cost. The rest goes to the label. Do copyright laws really protect authors?
  9. There is music production software that can create music, making lots of different melodies and keeping most pleasant tunes for human ear. This kind of software can be very productive. Should anyone hold the copyright to the tracks created by such software?
  10. Every day we see a lot of different images, listen to many songs, that’s why authors can sometimes copy others’ works of art unconsciously. Should we distinguish these cases from the cases, when people intentionally copy other authors?
  11. The greatest works of Shakespeare were more or less copied from others - but he was able to make them into something special. Is it reasonable to let authors quote each other's works?
  12. Jonas Salk, the inventor of polio vaccine, refused to patent his invention. As a result, the cure spread very fast and killed the disease almost completely. Alexander Fleming that discovered penicillin also didn’t patent it to make it most available. Do you think that copyright laws for medical inventions should be much less restrictive?
  13. In 1980s record companies argued against the use of tape-recorders, because their distribution allegedly infringed on the companies’ copyrights. Do copyright laws interfere with technologic advance?
  14. What will happen with copyright when 3D printing technology is widely used and everyone will be able to print anything?
  15. What do you think of other ways of monetization of videogames and other content by means of advertising, for example? Why don’t companies selling content in the internet use these strategies instead of demanding money for each song, book or game?
  16. Why can’t musicians earn money giving concerts and use albums as promo materials imposing restriction on commercialization?
  17. Should academic papers be available for everyone, or scientists and other people should pay for them?
  18. Do you think that people would pay for content, if the prices were reasonable?
  19. Would you buy music and books on the Internet (or buy them more than now) if the prices were lower?
  20. Many big companies including Wikipedia work on the basis of voluntary donation. How should the process be organized to earn profit?
  21. Is fighting with dissemination of information is fighting with the Internet itself?



public domain – общественное пользование

to purchase – купить

dissemination of information – распространение информации

copyright term length – срок действия авторского права

internet piracy – интернет-пиратство

to exploit commercially – использовать в коммерческих целях

commercialization – коммерческое использование

to hold a copyright – владеть авторским правом

copyright holder - правообладатель

to quote – цитировать

poliomyelitis vaccine – вакцина от полиомиелита

to patent an invention – запатентовать изобретение

tape-recorder – аудиомагнитафон

allegedly – якобы

to infringe someone's rights – нарушать чьи-то права

technologic advance – технологический прогресс

academic papers – научные публикации

voluntary donation – добровольные пожертвования

to earn profit – приносить прибыль

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