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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. identicon
    Karl Fogel, 15 Jan 2008 @ 5:50pm

    Actually, the purpose of copyright is even more su

    Glad you liked the video!

    It's true that some of those involved in originally designing copyright (in the late 1600s and early 1700s) were interested in promoting "progress"... but they problem they were trying to solve was about replication and distribution, not about creation. (This all predates the U.S. Constitution by many decades, by the way. The U.S. constitutional clause enabling copyrights mainly echoes a British system that had already been in place for years, and with which the framers of the Constitution were very familiar.)

    Copyright is probably best understood as a printing industry regulation designed to make the printing of books economical for the publishers, given the replication technology of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the printing press.

    Today, people have somehow gotten this notion that writers and artists rose up in the distant past and demanded monopoly restrictions on the distribution of their work. It's a myth: that's not what happened. Creative artists were mostly uninvolved in the beginnings of copyright -- which makes sense, because it wasn't done for them in the first place.

    See http://www.QuestionCopyright.org/faq#origin, and other articles on the site, for more details.

    Best,
    -Karl Fogel


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