January 22, 2003

Language of Copyright

Doc has written up some good thoughts on the Eldred decision over at AOTC.info. He says:

I believe Hollywood won because they have successfully repositioned copyright as a property issue. In other words, they successfully urged the world to understand copyright in terms of property. Copyright = property may not be accurate in a strict legal sense, but it still makes common sense, even to the Supreme Court…

This isn’t just a battle of words. It’s a battle of understandings…

“The Commons” and “the public domain” might be legitimate concepts with deep and relevant histories, but they’re too arcane to most of us. […] Communist and Commonist are just a little too close for comfort. Too social. Not private enough.

I think a lot of this has come from the way media companies frame the debate and the language they use. They don’t “sell music”, they “distribute content”. People don’t “copy” songs, they “pirate” or “steal” them. And they speak in absolute terms, saying that any copying is stealing. They tried that back when the casette tape came out, and the VCR, and both times they lost the debate. The concept of Fair Use was too strong, and the courts decided that if you bought a record, and then made a cassette copy for your car, that wasn’t stealing. If you made tapes for all your friends, that was wrong. There was a line there, separating legal from illegal.

Now the record companies are trying it again, saying that digital copying is stealing. And again they’re trying to ignore that line, pretend that it doesn’t exist, pretend that they can have some kind of control over how many times you listen to the song on your computer or copy it onto a CD or a portable MP3 player. And they’re still using the same language. They’re trying to get the media outlets they control to use the language, and getting celebrities to use their words during award shows. They’re trying to spread the meme, and they’re winning.

There’s been a discussion going on about copyright: whether it’s something that the government gives and then revokes after a limited time, or whether it’s something natural and inherent that is wrested away from us by force. You can see the two sides at work there, and they’re trying to debate, but they’re using different language so they’re never going to make any progress. Aaron Swartz seems to represent one extreme, saying that works should be given into the public domain once the creator has recovered the costs of creation. That borders not only on ridiculous but also on communism, and if anything, it strengthens the other side’s arguments. But the other side thinks that copyright should be permanent, something like the deed to a house, that can be passed on to your heirs, or bought and sold. That’s the extreme the media companies hold, that’s the meme they’re selling in the halls of Congress. And Congress is buying it.

Neither of those extremes has the right idea. As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The problem with the Eldred decision is that the Supreme Court was swayed by the meme the media industry has been spreading, and they gave Congress the permission to keep spreading it.

Filed under The Computer Vet Weblog

Comments (4)

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  1. Emily says:

    It is an interesting debate. I believe there will come a time when information will flow freely, that words and ideas will be exchanged without the fear of losing one's job.
    I'm also a writer. My poetry has been published in the small press. If someone wants to copy my stuff for personal use, I have no problem with it. They should be able to. That is the idea of fair use. But for another person to steal someone's ideas and claim them as their own, I disagree. If you want to write fanfiction, then put the disclaimer on it, but don't pretend you made the characters. If you want to copy music for your friends, you should be able to because you're not claiming that you wrote the songs.

    There's a big difference between stealing words another person has written and claiming that you wrote them, and making copies but giving credit to the author. One is plagiarism and the other isn't. Copying when you're not going to make money off what you copy should be allowed legally. I think it's only a matter of time.

    Posted January 22, 2003 @ 11:02 pm
  2. Louise says:

    I think you're a little paranoid with the whole language thing. I have a friend who talks like you and he took ONE linguistics class in university and it fucked him all up. Maybe you should rethink your argument,

    Yeah, I'm a part of the evil media but I'm not controlled by industries, and I don't think many others are.

    Posted January 23, 2003 @ 9:11 am
  3. randy says:

    I always thought if you bought something you owned it. If I buy a disc and copy it why is that wrong? If I sell it as my own and receive a profit than that is wrong. But to share with a friend ? Can you say or spell greed?

    Posted February 1, 2003 @ 11:11 pm
  4. George says:

    Intellectual efforts masquerading as property; patents that are ideas disguised as property – the 'owners' will forever be calculating who gets to 'buy' and under what conditions they get to 'use' the property – we will cease to exist as a society of exchange and debate (especially in the US currently);
    progress in any field will slow or cease and wars will be fought over patents, ideas and even their derived ideas; no wonder Linux is gaining popularity;
    Remuneration – think of it as the debt you pay to society and its members who supported you up to and during the creation of your ideas; it's the application of ideas that costs money – and brings profits but not to the point of stifling evolution – not a neat, tidy legal concept.

    Posted February 15, 2003 @ 2:59 pm

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