In my previous article about piracy
, I talked about the general definitions and concepts of the copyright law, and covered it’s advantages and some of it’s shortcomings. This article will cover the criticism directed at the current international copyright law.
Copyright is a law, thus it must be obeyed. However, no law is perfect. Just like many laws in the past that have become obsolete by now (such as slavery), copyright too might be actually wrong; and it might be improved or rendered useless in the future. Unfortunately, copyright has many shortcomings, making many people believe that it has become obsolete already. The message is clear: Obeying the copyright is not necessarily the right thing to do.
Copyright’s initial goal was to give people incentive for creation. It was believed that encouraging creative people to share their creations will in the long term be of benefit to the general public: After the author or the inventor of the original work passed away, people could use his creations to improve their life. On the other hand, if the said person didn’t have enough incentives to publish his creation, he might never create it and that would never be of benefit to anyone.
Thus, the governments began to give the creators an exclusive right to publish their own creation, a government granted monopoly so to speak. Their work was called an “intellectual property”. This, is a rather confusing term. An intellectual property is not a real property, it’s a right. The work of the creators in itself can not be owned by anyone: it’s a thought, and anyone is entitled to think about the said thought. This is called the freedom of thought.
However, huge corporations use this confusion to their own profit: They make people think that they own their work, not the right to publish it, dubbing anyone who use their work in any way a thieve. The copyright law has many different solutions to how copyrighted material is handled and what’s illegal and what’s not. Big corporations however, like you to think that doing anything to a copyrighted material is essentially illegal. They want us to think that copyright is created to protect their “properties”, never talking about the people’s benefit which was supposed to be gained from copyright law.
Big companies are good at calling people “thieves” and “pirates”
The copyright that is in use today is different than the copyright that was initially passed. None of the “expansions” made to the law was made with public benefit in mind. All of them are protections that big corporations has pushed for their own profit.
One such expansions is the work for hire concept: If a work is done by a number of people hired by a business owner, the copyright of such work is owned by the business owner, not the creators. This way, the business owner can earn from a work for at least 70 years, while the creative people actually responsible for the work only receive salary in the time they’re working on the job.
Copyright’s goal is to encourage people to be creative and earn from their creations. The “work for hire” concept is exactly the opposite: It discourages people from being creative, since the copyright will be owned by someone else. Also, the ones who profit from the creations are business owners, not the creators. Work for hire “expansion” changes the copyright law from a law that was supposed to benefit the “public” into a law that benefits the “business owners”.
is an expansion applied to copyright duration. According to the “Berne Convention
“, the signatory states are required to provide copyright protection for a minimum term of the life of the author plus fifty years, but they are permitted to provide for a longer term of protection. Major corporations know that they can profit from their “intellectual properties” as long as they are copyrighted. Fearing for their copyrighted works to be released into the public domain, they have been able to successfully lobby the congress into creating term extension laws when their properties was about to be released into public domain (See CTEA
). In U.S., the copyright duration has been extended four times, extending it from initial 28 years to over 90 years.
Copyright’s initial purpose was to encourage people to create works that would eventually be released into the public domain, benefiting the public, not just the creators. With consequential term extensions, a copyrighted work will not be released into public domain smoothly, putting further emphasis on corporate benefit rather than public benefit.
Expansion of U.S. copyright law
Note that the copyright for works created between 1925 to 1980 has been extended twice
Although the law has gotten expanded in favor of corporate businesses, it hasn’t received any updates where it’s actually needed. A good example of this is the advent of the internet. Internet is a completely new medium unlike any other, copyright on this medium must be handled in a practical way that doesn’t hinder basic communication on the internet. As an example, on the internet, everything is copied over and over again, without the user actually realizing it. Each image that you “see” is in fact copied from the server to your computer. (This is called caching) which means if you accidentally “view” a copyrighted work on the internet, you have successfully downloaded it to your computer, creating a copy. While the copy is used for the sole purpose of viewing and you have no control on what you will be seeing before you actually see it, the copyright law treats this as a normal classic copyright infringement. The punishment for this is the same as intentionally copying someone else’s work for your own profit. That’s like having the same punishment for “distributing drugs” and “hearing about drugs”.
Another example is copyright duration of software. A software’s copyright exists for over 70 years. But unlike other art forms such as literature, art, and motion picture, the software can’t just be “viewed”: A software is designed to work on a specific machine, and it won’t work on another one. At most, computers last 10 years, which creates a situation in which the software is released into the public domain when it has become useless, since the machines the software could run on are long gone. This makes the current copyright laws of software devoid of any benefit to the public whatsoever.
Another difference between software and other art works is in the way they are created: Art can be created by one person, and he can be the sole person who works on it from the beginning to the end. Software were also like that a decade ago, but the current software have evolved into millions of pages of code. It’s impossible for a single programmer to write this much code; These software are based on other software, meaning they use much of the code that’s been previously written for another software and make some changes and additions in order to create a new one. Each time an update is introduced, the copyright term gets extended, and it becomes even more difficult to create a rival software out of nothing. Since the copyright will be in effect for over 70 years, any programmer hoping to use standard technology has to pay loyalties to established companies in order to get a license. The broader the scope of the program, the more licensing fees must be payed. This effectively disables new programmers from competing with established corporations. Not only does it not encourage people to be creative, it also doesn’t benefit the public in any way. All an already established corporation like Microsoft has to do is to release the same product over and over again with minimum improvements, as seen with windows line of products.
New programmers can’t compete with engines that have been in development for a long time.
Copyright’s many shortcomings pave the way for abusing it, allowing people to use it for purposes that it was never intended to be used for. Copyright itself is often addressed as a “negative law”: stopping people from doing something instead of giving them a right to do something. The copyright law ultimately gives a copyright holder the ability to sue anyone and force them into a lawsuit. These lawsuits cost a lot and often take a long time to resolve. During this time, the plaintiff can freeze the defendant companies’ business, and claim copyright on a work, receiving licensing fees on it. By the time the copyright issue is resolved, the defendant has probably lost a large income while the plaintiff has made some profit over it. (See JPEG Patent Issues
and Connectix Virtual Game Station
The copyright gives you the ability to sue anyone, even when your claims are clearly false; It will be the defendant’s burden to prove he’s innocent. This “proving” costs money and time, and many people can’t afford it. Companies exploit this weakness and use it as a method for taking down anything that may put their income in danger, such as parody and criticism. This is done by sending C&D (Cease and Desist) letters; These letters ask the recipient to stop doing whatever he’s doing, delete the content, and never do it again, or else face legal action. If the recipient can’t afford fighting back a giant company, he has to put down his content even when he’s sure that the content were protected by fair use
or other limitations to copyright law
. The Chilling Effects
website has an archive of C&D letters that are submitted by recipients. This method effectively allows the copyright holders to use the copyright law as a censorship tool for putting down any content that may damage their reputation, such as facts about companies policies that masses are unaware of. (See Microsoft’s Cryptome shut down
Another way of abusing the law is to use copyright as a means of keeping information from the public, or restricting people from giving away some information to third parties. As an example, a company can own a work’s copyright, but not publish it. Since it’s illegal for any third party to distribute the work, there will be no way of accessing it, essentially making access to the work illegal. In a sense, copyright can be used to restrict the knowledge of people on a subject, hindering the basic human right of freedom of knowledge. Another example: A company gives you some information, perhaps on a piece of paper. By copyrighting that paper, the company prevents you from talking about it to anyone, as it would be the same as distributing copyrighted work. In this sense, copyright can be used to hinder the basic human right of freedom of speech.
Criticism of Intellectual Property
Work for Hire
In this article, we found out that copyright is an imperfect law. It has many shortcoming, often created by big companies for their own gain, and it has been effectively used as legal means for fraud, censorship, and hindering fundamental human rights.
In my next article about piracy, I will talk about the relationship between the companies and their customers.