Cory Doctorow: Why I Copyfight
from Locus Magazine, November 2008
Why does all this copyright reform stuff matter, anyway? What's at stake?
Until a very short time ago, copyright was an industrial regulation. If you fell under copyright's domain, it meant that you were using a piece of extraordinary industrial apparatus a printing press, a motion-picture camera, a record press. The cost of this apparatus was significant, so adding a couple hundred bucks for the services of a skilled copyright attorney to the deal wasn't much of a hardship. It merely tacked a couple percentage points of overhead onto the cost of doing business.
When non-industrial entities (e.g., people, schools, church groups, etc.) interacted with copyrighted works, they did things that copyright law didn't have anything to say about: they read books, they listened to music, they sang around the piano or went to the movies. They discussed this stuff. They sang it in the shower. Retold it (with variations) to the kids at bedtime. Quoted it. Painted murals for the kids' room based on it.
Then came the early days of the copyfight: the analog period, when VCRs, double-cassette-decks, photocopiers, and other proto-copying technology came along. Now it was possible to do things that rose to the realm of copyright's regulated activities (copying, performing, displaying, adapting) with stuff lying around the house. Dealer rooms at cons sometimes sported crudely bound fanfic "novels," teenagers courted each other with mix tapes, you could bring some HBO over to the neighbors' on VHS cassette and have a movie party.
And yet, there was comparatively little danger in this process. Although these activities were of dubious legality (certainly, the big rightsholder groups considered them technological suitcase nukes, comparing the VCR to the Boston Strangler and promising that "home taping is killing music"), the cost of enforcement was very high. Publishers and record labels and studios couldn't watch what you did at home and work and parties and cons, not without an expensive network of paid snitches whose salaries would exceed any losses they were experiencing.
Enter the Internet and the personal computer. These two technologies represent a perfect storm for bringing ordinary peoples' ordinary activity into the realm of copyright: every household has the apparatus to commit mass acts of infringement (the PC) and those infringements take place over a public conduit (the Internet) that can be cheaply monitored, allowing for low-cost enforcement against ordinary people by the thousand.
What's more, Internet transactions are more apt to commit a copyright offense than their offline equivalents. That's because every transaction on the Internet involves copies. The Internet is a system for efficiently making copies between computers. Whereas a conversation in your kitchen involves mere perturbations of air by noise, the same conversation on the net involves making thousands of copies. Every time you press a key, the keypress is copied several times on your computer, then copied into your modem, then copied onto a series of routers, thence (often) to a server, which may make hundreds of copies both ephemeral and long-term, and then to the other party(ies) to the conversation, where dozens more copies might be made.
Copyright law valorizes copying as a rare and noteworthy event. On the Internet, copying is automatic, massive, instantaneous, free, and constant. Clip a Dilbert cartoon and stick it on your office door and you're not violating copyright. Take a picture of your office door and put it on your homepage so that the same co-workers can see it, and you've violated copyright law, and since copyright law treats copying as such a rarified activity, it assesses penalties that run to the hundreds of thousands of dollars for each act of infringement.
There's a word for all the stuff we do with creative works all the conversing, retelling, singing, acting out, drawing, and thinking: we call it culture.
Culture's old. It's older than copyright.
The existence of culture is why copyright is valuable. The fact that we have a bottomless appetite for songs to sing together, for stories to share, for art to see and add to our visual vocabulary is the reason that people will pay money for these things.
Let me say that again: the reason copyright exists is because culture creates a market for creative works. If there was no market for creative works, there'd be no reason to care about copyright.
Content isn't king: culture is. The reason we go to the movies is to have something to talk about. If I sent you to a desert island and told you to choose between your records and your friends, you'd be a sociopath if you chose the music.
Culture's imperative is to share information: culture is shared information. Science fiction readers know this: the guy across from you on the subway with a gaudy SF novel in his hands is part of your group. You two have almost certainly read some of the same books, you've got some shared cultural referents, some things to talk about.
When you hear a song you love, you play it for the people in your tribe. When you read a book you love, you shove it into the hands of your friends to encourage them to read it too. When you see a great show, you get your friends to watch it too or you seek out the people who've already watched it and strike up a conversation with them.
So the natural inclination of anyone who is struck by a piece of creative work is to share it. And since "sharing" on the Internet is the same as "copying," this puts you square in copyright's crosshairs. Everyone copies. Dan Glickman, the ex-Congressman who now heads up the Motion Picture Association of America (as pure a copyright maximalist as you could hope to meet) admitted to copying Kirby Dick's documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated (a scorching critique of the MPAA's rating system) but excused it because the copy was "in [his] vault." To pretend that you do not copy is to adopt the twisted hypocrisy of the Victorians who swore that they never, ever masturbated. Everyone knows that they themselves are lying, and a large number of us know that everyone else is lying too.
But copyright's problem is that most of the copyists cheerfully admit that they copy. The majority of American Internet users engage in infringing file-sharing. If file-sharing were stamped out tomorrow, they'd swap the same files and more by trading hard drives, or thumb drives, or memory cards (and more data would change hands, albeit more slowly).
Copyists either know that they infringe but don't care, or they believe that the law can't possibly criminalize what they're doing and assume that it punishes more egregious forms of copying, such as selling pirate DVDs in the street. In fact, copyright law penalizes selling DVDs at a much lower level than sharing the same movies over the Internet for free, and the risk of buying one of these DVDs is much lower (thanks to the high costs of enforcement against people making transactions in the real world) than the risk of downloading them online.
Indeed, copyists are busily building an elaborate ethos of what can and can't be shared, and with whom, and under what circumstances. They join private sharing circles, argue norms among themselves, and in word and deed create a plethora of "para-copyrights" that reflect a cultural understanding of what they're meant to be doing.
The tragedy is that these para-copyrights have almost nothing in common with actual copyright law. No matter how hard you adhere to them, you're probably breaking the law so if you're in making anime music videos (videos for pop music made by cleverly splicing together clips of anime movies google for "amv" to see examples), you can abide by all the rules of your group about not showing them to outsiders and only using certain sources for music and video, but you're still committing millions of dollars' worth of infringement every time you sit down to your keyboard.
It's not surprising that para-copyright and copyright don't have much to say to one another. After all, copyright regulates what giant companies do with each other. Para-copyright regulates what individuals do with each other in a cultural settings. Why be surprised that these rulesets are so disjointed?
It's entirely possible that there's a detente to be reached between the copyists and the copyright holders: a set of rules that only try to encompass "culture" and not "industry." But the only way to bring copyists to the table is to stop insisting that all unauthorized copying is theft and a crime and wrong. People who know that copying is simple, good, and beneficial hear that and assume that you're either talking nonsense or that you're talking about someone else.
Because if copying on the Internet were ended tomorrow, it would be the end of culture on the Internet too. YouTube would vanish without its storehouse of infringing clips; LiveJournal would be dead without all those interesting little user-icons and those fascinating pastebombs from books, news-stories and blogs; Flickr would dry up and blow away without all those photos of copyrighted, trademarked and otherwise protected objects, works, and scenes.
These conversations are why we want the things we're conversing about. Fanfic is written by people who love books. YouTube clips are made by people who want you to watch the shows they're taken from and discuss them. LJ icons demonstrate affinity for works.
If culture loses the copyright wars, the reason for copyright dies with it.
Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.
Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.
Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:
- Nature's Daredevils: Writing for Young Audiences
- Think Like a Dandelion
- Put Not Your Faith in Ebook Readers
- Artist Rights
- Creative Commons
- Free(konomic) E-books
- The Progressive Apocalypse and Other Futurismic Delights
- In Praise of Fanfic
- You Do Like Reading Off a Computer
- Blogging Without the Blog
- The March of the Polygons: How High-Definition Is Bad News for SF Flicks
- How Copyright Broke
- Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet.
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