The Core of the Copyfight

Over on the PHD-DESIGN mailing list, Lars Albinsson asked, “In Sweden there is a huge debate on copyrights vs sharing on the Internet. (Swedes managed to both start the Pirate Bay, allegedly the leading peer-to-peer service, as well as introduce very strong regulatory legislation against it.) The trail of the pirate bay people this spring was one of the most internationally covered events in Sweden for years. The pirate lobby also started a political party and managed to get a seat in the European Parliament. There are mainly two sides in Sweden; roughly summed up as: Mainly record companies and some artists claim that the creative industry is dying because of internet piracy; and Other artists, many “intellectuals” and IT industry people claim the internet offers huge potential for creative businesses and people. What are the thoughts on the list about this issue (or issues)?”

As I see it, there are three sides to the “copyfight”: The public, the authors/artists, and the publishers.

Computer networks are built to share data, and the public Internet is the ultimate publishing system. Trying to prevent the public sharing data over the Internet is impossible, unless you create an intrusive police state.

Copyright conceptually starts with everything published being in the public domain. The public then grant authors a limited time monopoly over some aspects of published works in order to encourage publication. Authors do not have a natural right to control their work, this control is granted to them by the public so that the public may benefit. Note that the phrase “intellectual property” is designed to confuse this, suggesting that authors have natural rights akin to physical property rights, and lumping together laws which have almost nothing in common (patents, copyrights, trademarks, database rights, attribution rights, etc). That phrase must be avoided to have a meaningful discussion of the issues it is associated with.

The public used to trade away its natural right to copy published works to encourage the publication of more works, when it didn’t have widespread copying machines. Now that computer networks are here, the copyright bargain makes less sense for most of the public, and it seems they would rather have file sharing - even if this means that there are less works being published, which can not be assumed, although it is asserted by publishers.

Generally the political process of western democracies is dominated by corporate interests, and in this area, by publishing corporations. Therefore while the actions of the public support p2p file sharing, their governments have worked to support publishing companies. The Pirate Party is the end result of this; if the public are disenfranchised by corporate lobbyists enough about some issue, they will start political organisation to oppose the lobbyists.

So the question is, can authors/artists continue to make a living while allowing the public to share complete copies of their works, non commercially, on P2P networks? Or will the public taking back its right to share published works mean that great authors stop publishing new works and do something else?

In 2009 there is plenty of evidence that artists who are independent of publishers can make plenty of money when they respect their fan’s desire to file share; and indeed, there are examples of authors who assert they now make MORE money when the full texts of their novels are posted online.

This leaves little room for publishing companies, since artists are interfacing directly with the market over the net, and since the most famous authors and artists are contractually tied to publishers, as the publishers’ ship sinks, those artists who are going down with them have quite loud voices. However, famous artists are now actively leaving their publishers (Madonna, Radiohead, etc) and implementing the kind of mature and sophisticated “direct marketing” to monetise their works that newer artists who weren’t able to get publishing contracts have been perfecting.

Here in academia, the question is, can academics make a living while allowing the public to share complete copies of their articles, non commercially, on the web?

I suggest that they can.

A quick example: Orion Magazine just came to my attention today (having published an article - in full - about the Transition Towns movement, which I’ve recently started participating in) and the footer of each page explains: “Orion publishes six thoughtful, inspiring, and beautiful issues a year, supported entirely by our readers – we’re completely ad-free!”

Journalists and other professional authors will continue to exist, but their publishing companies and newspapers probably won’t. Many people are now professional bloggers, paid by donations directly sent by their readership and advertising.

(Many thanks to my friends Richard Stallman, who gave a speech titled “Copyright and Community in the Age of Computer Networks” at my undergraduate university in 2004 about these issues, and my dear departed friend Fravia who also practiced what he preached. Thanks also to the countless other thinkers associated with the copyfight who I do not personally know but whose works I have read :-)

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The The Core of the Copyfight by David Crossland, except the quotations and unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

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