Category: copyright

Copyright destroying our culture?

In an article in the Dutch newspaper NRC on April 17th Martin Bossenbroek and Hans Jansen explain why copyright prevents the development of a national digital library. For such a library to work over the Internet,  existing law requires that all authors are tracked down and their consent obtained. In many cases this is almost completely impossible.

The authors cite a specific example of a copy of the Dutch Panorama magazine from 1921, to which dozens of freelancers had contributed. To trace all these people, to find out whether they died before or after 1937 (copyright is valid until 70 years after the death of the author) and then find all possible heirs is a mountain of administrative work that means it is impossible to make Panorama available online.

The end result is that the copy of the Panorama is preserved in paper format, and no one can use it for research or education on the recent history of the Netherlands. The actual availability of information for the community is effectively reduced to zero. It is even worse with rare nitrate films that will fall apart in a few decades and that, for fear of copyright, no one dares to digitize. Lost forever.

And that’s crazy.

For the purpose of copyright law is ultimately to stimulate the creation and dissemination of works of the human spirit for society (and not, like the collecting agencies of this world would have us believe, to give publishers the right to print money). The question boils down to whether society actually benefits from copyright  extending until 70 years after the death of the author. The view of financial reward after death will hardly encourage the author to create new work. In practice, moreover, even 100 years ago the greatest returns came in the first few years after initial publication; more so in today’s faster economy.

Research from Cambridge University last year shows that a protection period of 15 years provides the economic optimum balance between the financial interests of authors and the benefits of free availability to society as a whole.

Copyright is a government-created artificial scarcity with one goal. However, in this century  that original goal is clearly not served by laws that were made for it. Why is copyright so long?  Lawrence Lessig has written extensively about this (bookdownload) but in short it comes down to ordinary lobbying by publishers and the music and film industry (I’ve always found it telling that it calls itself an industry – a name reflecting, without shame, its lack of beauty and creativity). Since the creation of copyright in the 18th century (mainly because of the invention of the printing press) the length of copyright has incrementally extended from the original 14 years to 70-years-after-the-death-of-the-author.

With the advent of institutions like the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), this particular American model has been imposed worldwide. To become members of the WTO and thereby enjoy low import tariffs in Western countries, governments are forced to sign the WIPO treaty and are then saddled with copyright that puts at risk the reuse of their cultural heritage. Perhaps it is time that the Netherlands once again takes the lead in the dissemination of intellectual works, just as we did in the 18th Century. At that time inflammatory books were printed here that partly brought about the French Revolution (statements about cake also played a role).

The availability of knowledge and culture to society is clearly not being served by current legislation. The solution is not a more complex system of exemptions, as Ewoud Sanders stated in his response to the NRC article, but a fundamental review of the purpose and effect of copyright. The research of Lawrence Lessig, the Free Culture movement and the recent research from Cambridge all provide good directions. Now we need a few policy makers with the courage to serve the community instead of the publishers and the music industry lobby.

This article, like all my public work, is under a Creative Commons licence. After all, the greatest risk an author runs today is not that their work is "stolen", but is that it is not read. Share & enjoy!