Is Non-Commercial Culture Doomed?

This is the best explanation of Richard Stallman’s views on copyright I’ve found. Its short and standalone, yet still comprehensive, compared to his normal ‘Copyright Versus Community’ speeches.

I’m posting here as I’m interested in discussing ‘non commercial’ terms.

The way computers always shrink the total manpower needed to author work of whatever kind to one, I think its increasingly impossible to distinguish commercial and non-commercial activity.

Copyright used to be an ‘Industrial regulation’ that effected only publishers who copied and distributed works, and the Internet has already made everyone a ‘non commercial publisher’ who can copy and distribute worldwide.

But if we continue to find a way to monetise individuals activity - eg, Witness the rise of Adsense on personal blogs - will this ‘non commercial’ distinction go away?

The design of the MojoNation p2p system (the direct predecessor to BitTorrent) included a digital cash system so that you earned tokens for uploading files, which you could spend to ‘bribe’ peers to sending you a particular file quicker. Consider if MojoNation went live, and the tokens could be converted to cash….?

A new copyright bargain

opendemocracy: So how do you think we should change our copyright systems to make them appropriate to the age of computer networks? RS: Well, clearly we should reduce the extent of copyright, now that freedoms to copy are not useless to the public. One dimension of copyright is time. Copyright used to last up to twenty-eight years. Until 1998, it was seventy-five years. Now it extends to seventy years after the author dies. Companies in the US said they needed that extension of copyright to make their business profitable. I challenged them to supply projected balance sheets for seventy-six years in the future. None of them attempted it. Of course, they wanted this extension simply because some popular works they owned were written about seventy-four years ago and they didn’t want these works to go into the public domain, now or ever. The US constitution says that copyright has to last for “a limited time”, so they can’t pass a law that says that copyright is perpetual. Instead they came up with perpetual copyright on the installment plan. Every twenty years they extend the length of copyright by another twenty years, so no copyright will ever expire again. In particular, Disney didn’t want the copyright on Mickey Mouse to expire. This is why the Sonny Bono Copyright Act is often called the Mickey Mouse Copyright Act. Meanwhile, the UK has legislated a perpetual copyright on Winnie the Pooh. This was made to seem palatable because the royalties go to charity; but it can serve as a precedent for perpetual copyright on other works. I am sure the publishers want that. So, time is one copyright dimension, and it’s been stretching. I think the duration of copyright should be as long as is necessary in the particular industry to provide an incentive – but no longer. Another dimension is which activities are covered by copyright. In some cases, it could make sense for it to cover commercial distribution but not non-commercial distribution. Then there’s verbatim distribution versus publishing modified versions. We should not aim for the simplest and most uniform copyright laws, because that gives us a small number of extreme choices. It’s as if you were shopping, and you agreed you would pay either one dollar, or one thousand dollars for any item, nothing in between. Music is already treated very differently under copyright, but all literary works are treated the same. Why? Publishers want uniformity because they can pick an area where they claim they need a lot of copyright power, and use uniformity to extend it across the board. Once you reject uniformity, you can tailor the amount of copyright, keeping in mind the social uses of different kinds of works.

Three new models of copyright

opendemocracy: Is your ‘Free Software’ model a viable way of developing and distributing other types of creative material? It might work for software, but surely it would be different for poetry or music? RS: I’ve identified three broad categories of works. First there are functional works: works that you use to get a job done. Second, works that represent someone’s thoughts: what certain people thought, or saw, want, or believe. The third category is aesthetic or entertaining work, where the sensation you get from looking at the work is the whole point. I believe each category needs to be considered separately. Functional works: software, recipes, dictionaries, text-books For functional works, it’s vital that people should have the freedom to publish a modified version, to improve the works and develop human knowledge. We have to allow that publication to be commercial, to make the modified works widely and conveniently available. Perhaps there should be no copyright for functional works. (We would need to ensure that End User License Agreements cannot be used to obtain the same effect). Or, as a compromise, copyright for functional works could last for three years – any software company not on its last legs is producing new product versions in that time. You have to measure the period by the timescales of the business. Representative works: essays, memoirs, scientific papers. For works that represent someone’s views or experiences, modified versions would simply misrepresent where the person stood, and that’s not socially useful. So we should only allow these to be copied verbatim, and there’s no social reason why other people should have a right to commercially publish verbatim copies. Aesthetic or entertaining works: music, novels, films. Aesthetic or entertaining works are the hardest category. There are strong arguments on both sides about whether you should be able to modify them, but I’m starting to think that you should. Taking other people’s stories and modifying them was often Shakespeare’s approach, and look at the wonderful results. Perhaps for these works one could set up an automatic system to apportion money for modified versions. Perhaps people generally won’t combine their work in too complicated ways in these areas. If Person A wrote an original novel – Person B writes a modified version… you won’t often get to a third generation, Person C modifying it again. If so, an automated system of apportionment among A and B might be workable. Of course, if only verbatim copying is allowed, you could ensure that the original author gets the commercial benefit. (In software we do often get hundreds of people contributing to a single program over time. No automatic system for dividing money among authors could possibly work for software). I think the term of copyright should be around ten years after publication for novels, and maybe twenty years for feature films, to provide sufficient incentive. Nowadays, most books are remaindered soon, and out of print in three years. Very few books remain in print for ten years, and those that do have already been big successes. So a ten-year copyright term would be enough to keep the publishing business going and to keep authors getting paid. Napster: public and private copying. There’s a further dimension to non-commercial copying: is it public or private? Are you just handing out copies to people you meet, or are you making them available to everyone on the Internet? I used to think private non-commercial copying might be enough freedom for some kinds of work, but Napster taught me differently. Napster is so useful that it must be permitted: you can’t tolerate giving up the freedom to do something so useful. So the right place to draw the line for fair use is between commercial and non-commercial, not between public and private. For representative and aesthetic works, a limited system covering just commercial copying is strong enough to provide an incentive for authors. For functional works, where this would be too restrictive, fortunately we have found that people will develop them even without the artificial copyright incentive.
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The Is Non-Commercial Culture Doomed? by David Crossland, except the quotations and unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.


One Response to “Is Non-Commercial Culture Doomed?”

  1. Understanding » Latest Copyright versus Community lectures on July 1st, 2007 13:04

    […] the other kinds of literary works. (Yes, software is a literary work, not a product). He outlines three broad categories of works which is a useful model for thinking about any particular kind of work, as well as the model […]

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