Thursday, August 27, 2009

The need for copyright reform

The UK pirate party has picked up press coverage recently, e.g. here and here in the Guardian. I am quite tempted to give them a protest vote at the next election; I have been dismayed by the way copyright law has been changed recently, as well as with new proposals. The articles relate to draconian proposals that could cut off your internet access if your kid downloads a copyrighted file without paying.

The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind is a new, freely-downloadable book by James Boyle (at Duke University law school) that discusses these issues. This paper by Hal Varian analyses the economics of copyright. (credit to this blog entry for pointing me to Varian's paper.)

Page 127 of Varian's article gives a brief history of how the term of copyright has been repeatedly extended in the USA. Now, copyright holders like to talk about "theft" and "stealing" in the context of copyright infringement. Well, if theft is by definition illegal, I guess what rights holders themselves have done does not qualify. On the other hand, if theft is simply the appropriation of something of value from someone else, without their consent, then extensions to copyright most definitely qualify. It's time to get angry with those people! They call us immoral, but they have stolen, and stolen repeatedly, from the public domain, all sorts of great works that ought to belong to us all. An enormous amount of work by long-dead authors is just about inaccessible, the collateral damage of copyright extensions that were motivated by the desire to "protect" only a small number of works. The collateral damage also includes all sorts of trivial stuff - books you once picked up in a used-book store, comics and magazines you once read as a kid, stuff that someone, somewhere would have put online, if only it were legal, but it's not, so instead it all get banished to a diminishing collection of dusty paper copies that no-one can ever find. All this for the sake of being able to profit from the creativity of someone who died over 70 years ago.

I'm not urging some kind of collectivist utopia where no intellectual property belongs to anyone. But, copyright should be like patents, that expire after (I think) 17 years. That's plenty of time to make money out of the intellectual property.


Pino Persiano said...

On this subject, there is a very interesting book by Boldrin & Levine entitled Against Intellectual Monopoly. Among other things, B&L explain how Watt managed to slow down progress in steam engine design by aggressively using the copyright law of the time.

Paul Goldberg said...

Thanks for that pointer. And I note that while the book itself is in copyright, Here is an earlier version available online. Maybe I should buy it anyway.

Paul Goldberg said...

And I just noticed the most recent on-line version is here, and comes with links to verious reviews.