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January 24, 2003 at 9 AM

Copywrong

Another comic on Salon.com hits home about the current copyright brouhaha in the United States. [Note: as with most articles on Salon these days, you need "premium" access to see this. If you don't subscribe, however, you can still get a "free" day pass by watching a short ad for Mercedes.]

Admittedly, the prospect of Superman flogging toilet paper and third-rate automobiles raises issues of taste. It's a testament to the popularity of the Man of Steel that so many decades after his creation, he is still such an enduring character that people would care to use his image for their own purposes, without the permission of DC Comics. But at a certain point, the only motivating factor behind maintaining copyright ad nauseam is greed. And in most cases, it's corporate greed.

Take the case of the Happy Birthday Song. Does it not seem ludicrous that 150 years after the creation of this little tune, when it has become a pervasive part of Western, perhaps even world culture, that you can't sing it in public without first paying off a pack of lawyers? Whose integrity are we protecting exactly? Would somebody feel financial difficulties if "Happy Birthday" were in the public domain?

Copyright was meant to encourage people to create without fear of their creations being immediately ripped off. This idea that copyright should be an indefinite license to profit from an idea is a fiction written by contemporary lawyers looking to please their zealous corporate clients.

Comments

Surely, though, this issue doesn’t so easily boil down to ‘blame the lawyers’?!

Recent US decisions on Intellectual Property (IP) matters do seem to be ignoring some of the law’s original motivations. But why do lawyers deserve the blame? It seems to me if a clever lawyer can come up with a way to extend copyright protections for Mickey Mouse, an equally clever lawyer can assert the opposing view.

Perhaps the complicity (or duplicity) of IP consumers might play a role in all of this. Or perhaps the level of influence that corporate interests hold in American society might be relevant. Or perhaps something more complex is at work.

Nonetheless, the issue can’t be as simple as “a fiction written by contemporary lawyers looking to please their zealous corporate clients”. Blame the lawyers. Is that really the best way to look at this?

Chris | Jan. 27, 2003 — 8 PM

I wasn’t blaming the lawyers specifically. They are, after all, just doing their jobs. I blame the “zealous corporate clients” and I blame governments for kowtowing to corporate interests before respecting the rights and priveleges of individuals. Or, as you say, “the level of influence that corporate interests hold in American society” — and every other Western society.

But what I resent is the coat of fear that copyright paints on people. It’s not easy to stand up for your rights when an IP lawyer sniffs you down and sends a threatening letter. And the person who usually has the least to gain — an individual — is the person who can least afford to defend him or herself.

— Luke | Jan. 29, 2003 — 4 PM

We mustn’t forget that IP law protects individuals. If we are artists, writers, or inventors, we need assurances that we can work in our trades with some reasonable hope of compensation. We want to earn a decent living from our labours. It’s difficult to see how this can be done without the protection of IP law.

Zealous corporations, intimidating lawyers and kowtowing governments do indeed exist. But one member we’ve forgotten from this list of ‘usual suspects’ is the apathetic individual citizen. We must object to the (implicit) suggestion that individuals are victimised by IP law. Individuals are protected by IP law. The victimisation, rather, is through our own tacit endorsement of the status quo. The source of excesses by corporations, governments, judiciaries and others is, in fact, individual acquiescence.

If a carpenter builds a box that is not square, is he right to blame his saw for the failure? The tool is not, of course, to blame but rather the carpenter himself - either for misusing the tool or for failing to maintain it. The issue to be addressed with respect to IP law is not the blameworthiness of corporations, governments and judiciaries, but rather the blameworthiness of the individual citizens who are the participants in - and patrons of - these institutions.

The suggestion of a “coat of fear that copyright paints on people” is really not a suggestion at all. It is - rather - a (sad) observation that individuals have chosen to shirk their responsibilities as citizens and view themselves, instead, as victims. The fear of copyright is not the making of our supposed oppressors - it is rather the making of our own apathy.

The solution, then, is to recognise this mistake of victimisation. As soon as we realise that we are not victims of governments, judiciaries, laws, corporations or lawyers - but rather victims of our own (in)actions - we will gain the power to alter our plight. It is easy to stand up for our rights when IP lawyers send threatening letters because we send back equally threatening letters.

IP law - indeed all law - serves to protect individuals, not victimise us. We become our own oppressors when we forget that this is the case.

Chris | Jan. 31, 2003 — 4 PM

As far as I understand (having worked on a public performance that had ‘Happy Birthday’ in it) you are actually paying the estate of the person who wrote the song, which is now held by his two nieces or something. So a real person does actually lose money if youd on’t pay.

— Emma | Feb. 1, 2003 — 8 PM

We can all agree that IP law exists to protect the creative power of individuals. Part of my argument is that the current trend in government legislation does nothing to protect individuals. Rather, governments listen to corporate lobbyists who argue that copyright should be extended to ensure the protection of corporate properties.

Once the creator of a copyright work dies, or if the creator isn’t the copyright holder, I fail to understand the fundamental basis for upholding a copyright for such a long length of time — like 100 years, other than making sure wallets are lined.

The people who own the copyright for Happy Birthday didn’t write it. What principle of our society suggests that they should profit off it when conceivably their ancestors should have taken care of them with their own profits?

What if a deceased author didn’t wish her forebears to profit endlessly from her work?

— Luke | Feb. 3, 2003 — 9 PM

Previously: Is That A Warm Front In Your Pocket, Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

Subsequently: Initiative 831

January 2003
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