Are Copyright Laws Just Plain Outdated?

Cyberlaw Tech News

Internet Jack-of-all-trades Joi Ito suggests as much in a recent interview at CNET News.com, at least in terms of dealing with the online world. Unlike the physical world, where the current copyright scheme allows casual sharing, such as lending a book to your classmate or watching a DVD with a friend, everytime something is shared online, a copy is made. Copyright laws can’t adequately distinguish between “good” sharing and “bad” sharing in the complex world of the Internet.

A just-published report by OpenBusiness.cc and the Arts Council of England reveals more interesting data about just how poorly copyright laws achieve their goals in the realm of online art.

The six-month study surveyed artists working in a digital environment to determine how they view copyright laws and to what extent they use Creative Commons licenses and why. Ninety-six percent of participants “displayed a negative inclination towards aspects of current copyright laws mostly describing it as too complex and one sided.” Particularly striking to me was that, of the artists who responded online, “not one subscribed to the view that copyright was a spur to creativity or was helpful in securing income.” (See this article for a summary.)

Granted, this study was conducted in the UK (where copyright laws are even more out of touch than they are in the US). Still, it’s worth considering for a moment, no matter where you live. In the United States, Congressional authority to establish copyright laws is provided for in the Constitution, “to
promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times
to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and
Discoveries.” (Art. I, Sec. 8, Cl. 8.) Monopoly power granted to authors is intended as a means to an end, not an end in itself (as Law Professor Lydia Pallas Loren explains). To the extent that copyright laws are hindering creativity, they should be rethought and redrafted.

Of course, as Joi Ito implicitly suggests in the interview mentioned above, current copyright law is probably adequate for many fields. What we need is a way of treating online artistic material differently. Creative Commons licenses are one good way of doing that under the current scheme. Here’s hoping for more research into how well the current system is working and laws that better reflect online realities.

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