The tangled thicket of copyright

Let me start by saying that I’m not a lawyer, and I never will be. My understanding of precise legal terminology is limited or nil. I couldn’t tell you the difference between Canadian and US copyright law. I know only what I’ve been able to decipher from what I’ve read.

That said, what I’ve read over the last little while about the issue of copyright has been interesting, to say the least. And given my position as a) someone who wants to write for a living, b) someone who wants to publish real-life books, c) someone who writes things on the Internet, and d) someone intensely interested in the possibilities of digital media, this whole “copyright” thing sounds kind of important.

So here’s what I’ve learned.

At the surface, there are two major sides to the copyright debate. On one side are Creators, writers and musicians and media conglomerates, who say that in order for them to make money, they need to control who can copy their stuff, and make sure than anyone who copies it gives them money. On the other side are Consumers, who want to buy things, and when they buy them, want to do things with them — beyond using them, they might want to lend them, give them, resell them, post them online… And people, generally, don’t like spending money they don’t have to.

However, things are a little more complicated than that. Turns out all that kind of worked a hundred years ago, when people couldn’t just go and republish a book someone else wrote. In today’s digital age, when everything you do with a file on a computer is, technically, copying, it doesn’t really work anymore.

I could try to explain why, but other people — smarter people, who really know their stuff, like lawyers — have explained it far better than I ever could. And so I direct you to exhibit A: Getting our Values around Copyright Right, by Lawrence Lessig. In this very smart-sounding article, he explains, among other things, how the needs of copyright have changed, and what we can do about it. (You may have seen something called the “Creative Commons” license around the internet; well, he was part of the group that created it. He knows his stuff.)

For a further look at the difference between the so-called Creators and Consumers, I point you towards exhibit B: an article from Ars Technica about the best copyright policies in the world — and importantly, how we judge “best.” Because while the US government — with “incentive” from big media conglomerates — might say the ability to pirate things is bad, consumers might take a different view. There also needs to be an important focus on reasonable exceptions to copyright law — like the US “fair use.” Which leads briefly to exhibit C: wherein we learn that this supposedly-important “fair use” thing contributed trillions of dollars to the US economy every year.

These last two suggest to me that even as an author, a creator, I should maybe think about possibilities outside my own realm of desire (what?? see both sides of an issue? never!). Looking back at the Lessig article, I can see that maybe there are ways I can hop aboard the copyright revolution (which, let’s remember from having read the article, isn’t the abolishment of copyright, just a reconstruction) without giving up my ability to maybe one day get paid (more than a stippence) for what I do.

So, I should write things, and put them online with a CC license, and then fill them with DRM so people have to pay me for it and can’t pirate it, right?

Well, no. Sure, every time someone “pirates” something I’ve created maybe I don’t get paid for it. But,

[Wil] Wheaton, who sold thousands of copies of his book “Sunken Treasure” in PDF,  explained that he isn’t worried about book piracy: “People who don’t want to give a creator money,” he said, “are never going to give a creator money.”

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