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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
    Derek Kerton (profile), 15 Jan 2008 @ 2:45pm

    People Seemed Informed

    Hmmm. I disagree, Mike. I think these people were remarkably well informed. Usually, man on the street interviews on ANY subject simply reveal rampant ignorance, yet these people had a pretty decent opinion on what Copyright does.

    Sure, they did not answer the PRECISE question that is written in the video "What is the purpose of Copyright?", because the original purpose is to stimulate the public release of creative works. But isn't that really a bit abstract a response to expect? Wouldn't you expect smart, practical people to just answer with the practical effect of Copyright?

    But my disagreement with you and Fogel's take on this has a better argument than the fact that people mistakenly responded with a practical interpretation of the purpose of Copyright. In fact, that is what they were actually asked to say...

    The actual question, orally recorded by Fogel at the start of the video is:

    "How would you describe the purpose of Copyright.
    What exactly does it do? What's it for?"

    What's it do? It does what they say it does. Perhaps they failed to mention the founding father's purpose, but I think the people did a great job of answering the question that they were actually asked, and thus the video and Fogel's point are completely moot.

    Who cares if they know how long Copyright has existed? I don't know how long the USA has driven on the right side of the road, and I don't need to. Been that way since I was born, and I can work in that system.

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