What's wrong with copyright

Copyright makes sense doesn’t it? If you put your heart and your hard graft into making music, or writing a novel, or contribute to the production of a major film, shouldn’t you get to choose what happens to your work? Woudn’t it be an affront to justice to have someone do whatever they like to it? Author Phillip Pullman describes it as “theft, as surely as reaching into someone’s pocket and taking their wallet”. The argument is simple and clear.

As with many things however, it isn’t as open and shut as it first appears. The presentation of unauthorised sharing as equivalent to physical theft is inaccurate, as the analogy does not make the leap from analogue to digital. This is a problem of old metaphors, something that often crops up when thinking about technology (link to evgeny morozov, the net delusion). When downloading a file from a server, or in parts from many other people using bittorrent, the process is non-destructive and you end up with two copies. In the wallet scenario, Philip no longer has his bank cards and pictures of his grandchildren. Thus digital piracy is not a zero sum game since it’s possible to produce an infinite number of copies of any particular work.

The concept of a file as being the same as a loaf of bread is bizarre. It supports big record labels who have been pumping huge sums of money into ridiculous adverts for the past 10 years, while watching their empire crumble around them. We really have to rethink what a creative work is. The only justification for protection of copyright is the sustenance and reward of the author. There is an appropriate amount of money that should be directed towards the creator to enable them to live a decent life and produce new works.

There’s a moral indignation present in a lot of these arguments, not based on economic argument, but promoted by the thought of someone getting something for nothing, without having earned it. The reward for creating value and sustenance of that person should be our goal, rather than making an arbitrary determination about who deserves to have what.

Creative works join a pool of culture and improve it. A single artwork like a piece of music can’t exist in isolation. What would dubstep be without dub and hip hop? What would dub be without reggae? Copyright holds a choke chain on the ability of an artist to create since they cannot sample old works. While some art forms like rap beats make very explicit use of sampling, everything creative does to some degree. You couldn’t besmirch if Shakespeare hadn’t invented the word.

So what we need are an appropriate set of rights that reflect the interweaved network of creativity we call our culture. Property is a bundle of rights. It’s never total. So we don’t have to either make everything free or castrate file sharers. We can assign some intellectual property rights to creators but recognise what they’ve borrowed from culture and unlock some of the capital to allow future creators to do the same.

To this end copyright should have a much more restrictive time limit of 10 years with liberal exceptions for creative works that remix existing material. Of course the current logic of copyright is unsustainable. We are denying ourselves the opportunity for a greater culture that builds on itself over and over because of the desire to put a value and restriction on something that cannot be depleted. We are forced to do this because the material resources we depend upon to survive are arbitrarily divided, compelling artists to create things that make money, rather than using our collective resources to create things that enhance our spirits.