7 minute read

Sometimes, I lie awake at night and worry about copyright. I then start worrying if this makes me irreconcilably weird.


I worry both for our American culture, as items have stopped falling into the public domain and becoming available to re-use and re-mix, or simply to re-present for free. If this doesn’t seem like a problem, this video on a 6-second drumbeat will blow your mind - especially if you then read this story about an artist being sued for a 1 minute clip of silence making fun of John Cage’s 4’33” of silence. The artist ended up settling out of court.

I worry more generally about international trade and development, as we inflict ever-tighter IP regulations on countries we give aid to or trade with - regulations which we scoffed and flouted during our own development.

We’re no longer protecting innovation with these laws - we’re protecting the first movers (often big, established businesses), and encouraging gaming the patent system to try and get the most generic and sweeping patent accepted.

Some bright spots in the current IP world include the proliferation of the copy-left movement in various forms, which encourage collaboration, sharing, and peer support. I’m talking about things like the Creative Commons licensing schemes, the Open Source Initiative, and the continued vigilance of “copy fighters” and the slow and painful death of Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) tools which try to prevent you from doing natural things with your music, like making a mix-tape (CD) for your car, or copying it to a second or third computer or media server in your own home, not to mention more malicious side-effects, like losing all your legitimately paid-for music when a DRM tool goes quietly into that good night.

There remain many ominous clouds, with continued mass embracing of technologies which restrict your own control over your bought and paid for (or self-created) content. Apple and Microsoft both continue to find annoying ways to restrict your usage (though Apple is finally getting better, and has dropped DRM from the iTunes Music Store, but you have to pay to “upgrade” any music you’ve already bought to the DRM-free version.

Music vs. the Internet is hardly a new story - in fact it’s at least 10 years old, starting with Napster and the murder of what could have been amazing tools to discover new music like AudioGalaxy.
The recent buzz has been over the coming death of newspapers and the transformative power of the Internet on any current media - not just music.

Net neutrality (MIT’s Technology Review has some good articles) and problems with monopolies on local Internet access being tied to content providers may create controls that limit legitimate traffic as well as copyright-infringing traffic (and who decides?).

The core problem however is not with enforcement and technological limitations (which is at the end of the day just a cat-and-mouse game that people who really want access to the information always win). The real problem is innovation, and whether our current intellectual property system which we are forcing on the globe supports innovation - or kills it. Two economists at St. Louis’ Washington University recently came out strongly against our IP framework;

“Intellectual property is in fact an intellectual monopoly that hinders rather than helps the competitive free market regime that has delivered wealth and innovation to our doorsteps.”

I wholly agree with this. It’s time to change the patent system to reward innovation, not long-time ownership and legal maneuvering. Let’s drastically reduce the time-frame for protection of key technologies and copyright, abolish “business process” style patents, and improve the patent review system to weed out overreaching, inappropriate, and simply non-unique ideas.

Some bonus confusion to really mess your brain up: The AP is suing an artist who they claim plagiarized one of their photos in his art. This artist has made a career out of altering iconic imagery (and usually adding a star with the face of Andre the Giant on it - I kid you not). The artist claims he’s made no profits off of it, the original photographer doesn’t seem irked (and, indeed, would like a signed print. There are many other photos which could have also been the source (a core problem with taking an iconic photo is that it’s iconic). Who’s in the wrong? Who should be paying whom? Does it matter that the artwork in question here is the red-blue-and-yellow Obama poster which now has an online “generator” to make any photograph into the same print-style? If someone makes a tool that automatically takes AP photos and Obamaicons them, does anyone’s head explode?