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), 16 Jan 2008 @ 12:00am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: someone tell EMI

    Are you saying these corporations are actually changing laws, or just manipulating current laws to their advantage? And if so, how exactly are they doing that? I'm oblivious to any of this.


    They've done both, repeatedly. There's way too long a history to go into to give all of the examples, but a few key ones are things like the constant extension of copyright so that it's become essentially infinite (basically, whenever Micky Mouse is about to go into the public domain, it gets extended) and the recent PRO IP bill which would make the FBI into Hollywood's private enforcement arm.

    From the little I know, I really like the concept of copyrighting/patenting/trademarking. It is part of the capitalist mindset to further progress that is obviously working

    Hmm. Don't confuse correlation with causation. There's fairly strong evidence that US success has been in spite of its IP system, rather than because of it. If you look at actual studies on the matter, there's little to no proof that IP protection increases output, and a fair amount that suggests the opposite (i.e., once you have a monopoly protection, you now have less incentive to create the *next* thing).

    Also, I'm curious how you see IP as being a capitalist idea? It's a gov't granted monopoly, which is generally the opposite of a capitalist concept.

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