Do You Actually Understand What Copyright Is For?

from the most-people-don't dept

One of the more amazing things I've discovered in discussing copyright, patents and trademarks with people is that very few people seem to know what each of those three sets of regulations are actually intended for. It certainly makes reasonable discussion and debate on any sort of reform difficult when a large percentage of people involved in the debate (or, tragically, writing the laws around those regulations) seem to believe the purpose of them is entirely different than it actually is. That's why we've tried to point to some historically interesting discussions on these regulations. Two recent blog posts pointed out something interesting related to all this. The first, comes (again) from copyright expert William Patry, who points to a seven minute video of ordinary people explaining why they think copyright exists. The video itself is by Karl Fogel, who also runs a site called Question Copyright. What the video pretty clearly demonstrates is that most people have no clue why copyright exists, and many assume (as we see in the comments around here) that it's there to "protect" the content creator or to prevent plagiarism. No one seems to note that its true purpose, as per the Constitution, is to promote progress (amusingly, many believe copyright is a much more recent creation).
While it may seem a bit simplistic to ask a bunch of random people in a park why they think copyright exists, it's actually fairly important when the vast majority of folks don't fully understand the purpose of copyright -- as that's what allows copyright to be extended and turned into something that goes far beyond its original intentions, as we see today. William Stepp, over at Against Monopoly, highlights this by pointing to a new dissertation called Pimps and Ferrets: Copyright and Culture in the United States. It's 231 pages of copyright history goodness, basically describing how this lack of knowledge and understanding of copyright in the 19th century is what allowed continual copyright expansion in that era as well. What started out as something that could only be held in very, very rare cases (as per James Madison's belief that copyright and patents should be quite limited to avoid abuse) was continually expanded to cover much, much more over time. There have been plenty of stories about how copyright has been expanded and lengthened greatly over the past one hundred years, but it happened for the preceding 100 years as well -- thanks in large part to a near total lack of understanding of the true issues at hand by many of the people involved.

Filed Under: copyright

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  1. icon
    Mike (profile), 15 Jan 2008 @ 2:27pm

    Re: Re: Re: Disagreement

    Possible. I don't really know of any evidence. Take writing a book for example. You spend one year writting the book and copyrighting the information in the book. Without copywritting someone else can sit back, wait for the book to be realease, and copy it word for word. Lets say its a major corporation and they have more money than you. Because they have more money they can more widely publish the book, market their version as the first and make money off your efforts. Without copyrights the author of the book has lost most financial benefits of his work.

    Again, as I wrote above, that's not actually true. Even when identical versions were published of the 9/11 report, it was still the publisher that got it out first who received the bulk of the sales.

    On top of that, there is the reputation issue, which is likely to keep the scenario you described in check. If a big publisher does that regularly, it would get a bad reputation in the market, and people would learn to stay away from them. That publisher has all the incentive in the world to actually reward the author, as it means that when he or she writes the next book, they may be more likely to team up with that publisher to release the initial copies (which, as we noted, is where the bulk of the revenue lies).

    As proof of this, back in the 19th century, US publishers did not need to obey copyright of foreign authors if they wanted to republish in the US. Certainly, there were some publishers who chose to merely copy foreign books, but the biggest publishers still sent royalties to the authors as they recognized how important it was to have a good relationship with those authors (and with the public).

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