Can You Fairly Distinguish Commercial vs. Non-Commercial Use In Copyright?

from the not-convinced...-but... dept

One issue that comes up in discussions of copyright quite often is the idea of whether or not you could change copyright law to distinguish between commercial and non-commercial use. In some ways this is quite appealing, and Cory Doctorow's latest column makes the case for at least exploring those distinctions. However, even he admits that there is a gray area, and I wonder if that gray area is really complex. I don't think it would necessarily make copyright law any worse, and my guess is that, at least initially, it would make copyright function better. After all, copyright law itself was really intended for commercial use (though, there are some lobbyists who falsely claim otherwise). It's only in this day and age when everyone has the tools of content creation, reproduction, performance and distribution in their pockets and on every desk that the old copyright laws have been shown to not function properly at all.

So perhaps separating out commercial and non-commercial use is a step in the right direction. But I'm still confused about how you determine what really is commercial use vs. non-commercial use. If I use your information to make an investment, is that commercial use? If I have a blog that uses a bit of your content, but has ads on it, is that commercial use? There are some RSS feeds that declare "not for commercial use!" But, if I put that RSS into my feed reader and read it for work, is that commercial use? It's not really that clear. And given that many individuals and companies feel that any even (borderline) commercial use of their works deserves compensation, you could see an awful lot of lawsuits filed as we try to define the borders. Perhaps copyright law could be written to make the border clear (though, I doubt it). Perhaps the lawsuits would establish clear boundaries as well, after a bit of upheaval and lawsuits. But I think that there will always be new situations that again test the fuzzy border between the two types of use, and drawing any sort of bright line distinction won't really fix very much.

Filed Under: commercial, copyright, copyright reform, non-commercial


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  1. icon
    Nick Coghlan (profile), 29 Jan 2010 @ 7:05pm

    Bounding the grey area

    Laws wouldn't be able to eliminate the grey area, but the could definitely put bounds on it.

    If you're past "this line" you are definitely infringing
    If you're past "that line" you are not doing anything wrong
    If you're between those two lines, tell it to the judge (assuming anyone bothers to sue you)

    That said, the copyright monopolists still have too much power for anyone to shut off their gravy train just yet. It is going to take a generational shift to fix this one. Given current retirement ages, we're probably still looking at another 20+ years before the reins of power are held predominantly by "digital natives" that see current copyright laws for the anachronism they are.

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