Monday, 29 November 2010

Copyright or Copywrong?

Cory Doctorow, over at The Guardian, has raised an interesting question about copyright in this age of digital technologies and increasing access to information. That question is: What do we want copyright to do? And his answer? Simple: To offer a diverse form of entertainment/information to as diverse an audience as possible, while still encouraging a diverse range of creators to be . . . um, diverse. So in a nutshell, it's about maintaining diversity. Built into that argument is the suggestion that creators would become less diverse if they weren't getting remunerated for their work. So diversity requires proper recompense for creators.

This argument sounds very familiar to me. As I've always understood it, copyright and intellectual property rights exist to reward creators for innovation, while also being balanced to allow access to those who would benefit from that innovation. Thus patents for important beneficial drugs are time-specific, to allow proper competition to come to the fore, so that cheaper drugs will be available for those who need them. The same, I guess, goes for books. Our culture and literature has been enriched by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but it's been enriched again by the MGM film and more recently by Wicked. Indeed, my novelist friend Deb Hoag is working on a satirical fantasy novel based on the Oz franchise, with strong queer and feminist themes. Deb's book adds something new to contemporary literature, as well as to the original Oz franchise. So it's good that copyright isn't permanent. I hope in a hundred years time, future writers will be reworking Deb's books, or my own, or Stephen King's, or whoever's.

All proprietary rights over innovation need to be tempered.

For example, Cory suggests the idea of architects having copyright over their creations (i.e., preventing tourists from taking holiday snaps, etc) is ludicrous, because having tourists take photos of their creations in no way diminishes the diversity of architects or architecture.

In terms of music downloads and filesharing, he suggests a licensing system, where ISPs would pay a fixed fee to publishers. This would reduce all the snooping, reporting and collating required to track down individual music fans who get a little overzealous, while allowing audiences a greater access to the files they would've sought anyway. It also means artists would be remunerated correctly and we could focus on greater transparency at places like PirateBay and Napster, instead. I like this idea. It makes sense. Radio didn't destroy composers, after all, and VCRs didn't destroy TV. Give people access to what they want and give the creators remuneration for that access, and everybody is happy and nothing has to be banned at all.

Cory also suggests trying to shut down YouTube is not a balanced proposition. That billions of hours of independently-produced material, with audiences of several hundred million, should be taken from the public for the sake of a few hours' worth of blockbuster clips seems unreasonable.

Copyright laws for books seem pretty sound to me, and perhaps that's why Cory doesn't bring them up, but what do you think about books and copyright? Do we need changes in the face of ebooks and digitisation? Or should things stay the way they are?

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