Copyright is dead – time to sign the death certificate

Infringement of copyright has long been recognised as an act of theft, but in the age of the Internet, can we really afford this mindset, or are there better and more profitable ways of dealing with such abuses?

Earlier this week, a Federal judge in California granted an injunction for copyright infringement against a video provider, Zediva, at the behest of major studios. The decision was hailed as “a great victory for the more than two million American men and women whose livelihoods depend on a thriving film and television industry.” But is it?

In the pre-Internet age, copyright was often difficult if not impossible to enforce, certainly for the average journalist, author, or any of us “little people” who held the rights to anything. For example, in December 1981, photographer Andrew Besley had the “scoop of a lifetime” when he took photographs of the Penlee Lifeboat disaster that claimed the lives of 16 people. (Okay, this can be construed as profiting from tragedy, but let’s be realistic). Besley was foolish enough to entrust Ted Hynds of Devon News Services with his photos, and a decade later he was awarded £45,000 damages by a County Court judge. His union, the NUJ, spent an estimated £80,000 on the case. It remains to be seen how much either Besley or the NUJ were able to recover from Hynds.

With today’s Internet, photographs and other original documents can be published in a hundred jurisdictions in the blink of an eye, and while it is not impossible for Joe Sixpack to have a video removed from YouTube, in practice – as in the Besley case – only both the very rich and the very determined can pursue the matter through the courts, and possibly prevent meaningful distribution; if something goes “viral”, even that may not be possible. So the question should be asked, why bother?

A variety of arguments are used, one of course is that this is actually theft, which it may be, but the same people who are quick to cry foul whenever their own copyright is infringed are not shy about using the same Internet for all manner of research, or simply for entertainment without checking meticulously the copyright of everything they view – which is not possible anyway. The only cost for most people is a computer and Internet connection, and if you are content to rely on the local Internet caff or library, it needn’ t even cost that.

It is the old story that everyone likes something for nothing, unless they are they are ones providing the something. In the early days of personal computing and bordering on the dawn of the Internet age, programmers sprung up all over the place. Ordinary people, many of them with no great technical knowledge, were writing programs and developing software left, right and centre. There was so much of it that you literally couldn’t give it away. Although it was of variable quality, much of it was very fine indeed, and certainly useful or simply amusing to millions of computer buffs worldwide. Because it was difficult to sell, the concept of shareware was born. While doubtless some people made a little money out of shareware, probably most didn’t make anything at all; at the end of the day, the only reward they received was the knowledge that some program, be it a calculator, or maybe a game, was out there being used by dozens, hundreds or thousands of people, and “I wrote that”. Oscar Wilde may have been right when he said that all art is quite useless, but creativity is its own reward.

Of course, there is a big difference between a guy who writes programs in his free time for his own amusement and a company that has staff and substantial overheads to pay, including perhaps an advertising budget. Who pays commercial concerns? The answer is, or should be, the Internet.

One way out of the ongoing banking madness is to take the power of creating credit ex nihilo away from the banks – who contribute no real wealth and give it to the people who do create wealth.

A recording artist or a company, perhaps a news company or a film company or even a software company, that creates something original that is used by thousands or even millions of people, is adding to the wealth not merely of its own community, but of the entire world, whether or not it is actually selling this product.

Instead of facilitating the chasing of “copyright thieves” through the criminal or more often the civil courts, the governments of the world should issue new money debt-free to ISPs and web hosting companies, and a portion of this can then be distributed to the actual creators of this wealth, in particular the major news services – including Digital Journal! – software companies, and websites like YouTube. A tiny proportion of this new money would trickle down to us little people, but for most creators of on-line content, the real reward is not material, but seeing their names in print as it were.

The alternative is for film companies, and organisations like the NUJ and ALCS to keep chasing major “pirates” through the courts, a practice that at the end of the day seldom benefits anyone but the lawyers.

[The above op-ed was first published August 3, 2011.]

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