13 September 2011

Copyright Theft

The ideas that "copyright theft" is widespread, and that people are "stealing" digital content from creators, are favourite tropes of the copyright maximalists.  It's total rubbish, of course.  The law clearly states that if it is anything it is copyright infringement, and simple logic tells us that digital copies aren't stealing, because they do not take away, but add.

Yes, there is a question of whether that unauthorised duplication leads to a loss of revenue, but the answer is by no means as clear-cut as people would have you believe.  A range of studies shows that such sharing actually boosts sales, acting as unofficial - and free - marketing.

That's why I've long been advocating independent research into this area - after all, if the copyright industries are so sure that file sharing is leading to revenue loss, what have they to fear from objective research into this area?  And yet strangely they seem reluctant even to countenance the idea.

But whatever your views on that particular issue, it seems likely that the following will only exacerbate the problem [.pdf]:

The [European] Council today adopted by qualified majority a directive extending the term of protection of the rights of performers and phonogram producers on music recordings within the EU from 50 to 70 years.

What this means, in practical terms, is that there is very little chance that I - or any of my more musical contemporaries - will ever be able to use today's music recordings to create new works.  As with the other media, contemporary recorded music will live in a closed, antiseptic bubble that no one is allowed to penetrate for nearly a hundred years or so.

That's all very distant and theoretical; it's hard to see what the problem is, perhas.  So let's look a little more closely at what has happened here by imagining a strange parallel world, remarkable like our own until yesterday, when the following happened:

The [European] Council Council today adopted by qualified majority a directive reducing the term of protection of the rights of performers and phonogram producers on music recordings within the EU from 50 to 30 years.

As you can see, this is almost exactly the same as our world, with the very minor difference that the copyright term for music recordings was reduced by 20 years, instead of being increased.  Pretty minor, you might think - after all, what's 20 years plus or minus?  If it can be increased, it can be decreased, no?

But in that parallel world, imagine the howls of anger and pain that would be issuing forth from the music industry at this outrageous and unjustified appropriation of their rightful dues.  Musicians would be marching in the streets, and the companies that live off them would be lobbying as never before to get this terrible result reversed.

Luckily for them, that was in a parallel world.  But thanks to the symmetry of copyright - that it represents a bargain between creators and the public, with grants of a temporary monopoly to the former in return for the passage into the public domain of the work after that monopoly has expired - that very same expropriation has taken place - from you, me and everyone that goes to make up that nebulous "public".  The only really difference is that no one is marching in the streets to reverse it.

When the musicians recorded their songs, the deal was that they would receive copyright for 50 years (or maybe less, depending on when they recorded it).  In return for that 50 years, they agreed that the public domain would be enriched so that we, the public, could do as we wished with that music.

That compact, freely entered into by both sides, has just been broken.  The recordings will no longer enter the public domain on the agreed date; instead, we must wait yet another 20 years.  In effect, then, we have had 20 years public domain use stolen from us, since nothing was given in return for this sudden loss.

There can be no quibbling here about whether this is really theft, because something we had before has been taken away without our permission.  Yes, the European Council may theoretically be acting in our name, but I don't remember being asked at any point whether I agreed to this.  The fact is that the Council acted unilaterally, at the behest of the music industry that wanted something for nothing - not because we, the public, were begging politicians to change the law in this way and to make us poorer than we were before.

This is what *real* copyright theft looks like: the stealing from the public by yet another unjustified and undemocratic extension of copyright.

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saulgoode said...

One only has to look at the book publishing industry's reaction to the proposal of libraries archiving orphaned works[1] for a glimpse into what can happen in this strange parallel universe where the "forbidden knowledge" business model comes under the slightest of threats.

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/sep/13/writers-sue-university-libraries-copyright

Glyn Moody said...

@saulgoode: yes, what an unedifying spectacle that has been...