Houston, We Have A Copyright Problem
from the not-this-again dept
It's a dangerous myth, that we should all need permission any time we're getting value out of a piece of culture. And it's one that gets entrenched deeper each time we accept the idea that we're able to make use of a work because a copyright owner is or would be OK with it, and not just because we have a basic right to participate in culture that is more fundamental than anybody else's desire to maximize profits.Every time we discuss the public domain and how it's increasingly difficult to (a) get anything new into the public domain or (b) determine if something is in the public domain, people seem to dismiss this, as if it's not really a problem. But it is a big problem -- and much of it brought about because of our over aggressive copyright laws, and the potential liability it puts on companies.
We've lost a valuable chunk of the public domain, then, even without the complicity of online services. But those sites feel pressure, too: the minimum they must do to stay inside copyright “safe harbors” is prescribed by law, and many go further in efforts to be on good terms with media companies. That looks like overzealous algorithmic copyright enforcement, like the automated system that caught my upload after some partner presumably laid claim to it (and who knows how much else).This sense of copyright being the default and everything else the exception is backwards. It was never intended to be that way. In fact, the system was explicitly designed to be the reverse. It is supposed to be about providing limited protections for the purpose of benefiting the public. But now it's turned into a giant "minefield" in which everything is simply a potential liability, creating a dangerous "permission culture," that chills speech and innovation.
Even as these companies and services strive to be massively accessible public spaces—SoundCloud bills itself as “the world's leading social sound platform where anyone can create sounds and share them everywhere”—they reflect mostly corporate priorities, because they face far too little pressure from the other side. That is, from users who wish to participate in culture, and who don't want to be treated like criminals.
Higgins titled his essay on this, Houston, we have a public domain problem -- but the public domain is not the problem here. The problem is the overaggressive nature of copyright laws that have totally flipped the equation. Copyright is supposed to be the exception, not the rule. And yet, decades of fierce lobbying has completely changed that around, much to the detriment of arts, culture and innovation.