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Questioning Copyright



This book presents ideas that you may find odd at first.  The most important thing I can ask of you is to please read it with an open mind.

For most people, the word copyright comes with a certain set of associations — ones so familiar that they seem to have been with us our whole lives. We think of a writer struggling to get her novel finished, and finally enjoying a well-deserved success when it is sold to a publisher and makes the best-seller lists.  We think of a band playing bars and small theaters for years, before finally getting that big break and being signed by a major record label. Some people will also think of corporations taking advantage of inexperienced artists, or of copyright law being over-extended to the point where it prevents even everyday, non-commercial sharing of music.

The premise of this book is that that entire frame for thinking about copyright is misleading, in ways that are bad for both artists and their audiences, and that there's another, older way to think about copying and distribution that is actually a much better fit for the Internet age.

But if the above associations were the ones that first spring to your mind too, you're not alone. Over the years, I've asked a lot of people what they think about copyright, and the answers nearly always fall into these categories:

  1. It ensures artists get credit for their work
  2. It gives them control over their work
  3. It's how they earn a living from their art (sometimes expressed as: stealing is wrong — if you like someone's work, you should pay for it!)
  4. It started out as a good idea, but lately it's gone too far and has gotten "out of balance": corporations became greedy and now exert too much control, without giving artists enough in return.

Attribution, control, money, balance. As you read this book, you will probably feel those associations coming repeatedly to the front of your mind too. In fact, you may right now hear an inner voice saying "Wait — if he's claiming that copyright itself is a bad idea, then how does he expect artists to make a living? This is just naive!"

That would be an understandable reaction, and I can't promise that by the end of this book you will feel any differently. But what I can promise is that those objections will all be addressed. You may or may not find every point convincing, but I hope you will at least come out believing that copyright deserves deeper and more skeptical consideration than it usually gets. What conclusions you finally draw I cannot control; I can only make sure that this book speaks directly to the questions you are most likely to have, and offers you fresh answers.

All I ask is your patience — not because the topic is complicated, but because it requires unlearning, or at least holding to one side, assumptions that we've inherited almost unconsciously.

As you'll see, the process by which we acquired those assumptions was not accidental, though neither was it the result of some nefarious conspiracy. It was essentially a stabilizing response to technological change — the invention of the printing press, centuries ago — and those long-held assumptions are starting to look shaky now because of another technological change: the Internet. But this is not really a book about technology. There are fundamental reasons, independent of any particular technological development, to question whether copyright is consistent with values that most of us profess.

And there is an alternative.

On first encountering copyright skepticism, people often ask "Then what should replace it? Have you got a better system?" The answer is "Yes", and the rest of this book goes into detail.  But the question itself starts from the assumption that copyright performs some vital function that would otherwise go unperformed, and that's one of the assumptions this book challenges. Copyright as we know it today first appeared in the early eighteenth century, as a kind of state-sanctioned truce among competing publishers, and the systems of distribution and funding that existed before copyright continued to exist afterwards, right down to the present day.  They are still how most creativity is supported, insofar as that can be measured at all — but then that caution goes both ways: if copyright is to be justified on the grounds that it is necessary to fund cultural activity, then we should see if there's evidence to support that assertion, and not just assume it is the case.

Throughout this book, questions like "What should replace copyright?", "But what about plagiarism?", etc, will feel natural to ask (though I hope they will feel less and less natural the more you read).  Because everyone asks them, we'll offer answers.  But our goal is also to show how those questions become far less compelling once one is looking at the issue in a new light, and to show how other, different questions become more important.

TODO: DRAFT -- still writing below.  When this line goes away, this intro is draft ready.

Lay Out The Straightforward Case.

todo: Lay out the straightforward argument in favor of freedom here, as persuasively as possible.  Assume good faith on the reader's part.  This is just a summary; link out to later chapters for the detailed arguments.

How to read this book.

todo: optional subsection. First, a few short articles that highlight problems with copyright (for example translations_a_tale_of_two_authors and teaching_music_under_copyright and maybe we_have_his_dream ).

A note to artists, writers, musicians, and other creators.

If you make art, music, writings, or other works that could be subject to copyright, this book also offers concrete advice regarding copyright and distribution.

how_to_free_your_work, the_cobbler, understanding_free_content

Even if you currently make money from royalties and are accustomed to having an exclusive arrangement with a publisher, you may wish to evaluate the advice and see if you like some of it. You can try the parts you like; it's not an all-or-nothing proposition.

The same goes for publishers and distributors. Publishing exist without the exclusivity conferred by copyright — indeed, some of publishing's functions get easier without copyright than with it.

problem_is_monopolies_not_middlemen, creator_endorsed

todo: guided tour of ideas here, with links to the relevant chapters?

These chapters are already included:

And these are candidates for inclusion, either as independent chapters or to be worked into a chapter or into the introduction:

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