Thoughts about copyright

I’m currently working, in another tab on my browser, on a resource page of videos about copyright. As part of that, I realised there’s a bit of personal background I wanted to talk about, but that doesn’t fit the goal of that page. So, here it is.

My contradictory background:

I spend a lot of my personal life in several communities where resources and wonderful stuff are widely shared (generally with an ethic of respecting the creator’s preferences) while recognising that current copyright law has some pretty serious flaws. And of course, my professional life is in a world where use of copyrighted work in an educational context is terribly confusing and often contradictory, even though some kinds of use clearly improve learning, understanding, and connection with amazing resources and creators. The current methods for using a work while respecting the effort of the creator are confusing, complicated, and often too expensive (both in time/energy and in things like licensing fees) for individual teachers or smaller schools to negotiate well, even with the best of intentions.

I’m also the child of a father whose published and unique creative work created a meaningful financial benefit for his family (though it was never his primary income). As an adult, I have created a variety of material, some of which I share freely, some of which has more restrictions for various reasons. I have friends and acquaintances who spend time creating creative work for many and various reasons, but who need to sometimes use the law to protect their livelihood, or use of their material in ways that can be anywhere from confusing to utterly misleading or even risky (for example, I have friends who’ve had instructional materials copied without the relevant safety or background information.)

I recognise that copyright does help with the creation of works of larger scope and time, as well as giving creators some legal options if their work (and time, and effort) are abused. (And I have some book-length projects I’d like to tackle where committing that kind of time and energy is only sensible for me if I have some control over the finished product’s distribution.)

And I’ve handled DMCA removal requests in multiple settings over the years. I think the DMCA is an even more flawed law than copyright in general, because the practicalities of the law make certain kinds of legal responses anywhere from effectively impossible to very expensive – something most individuals can’t address. I’ve also seen it used as a club to shut down responses to discussion, to make life difficult for someone on the wrong side of an online argument, and much more in that vein. And yet, it’s currently the only real tool for handling online situations where one person copies another person’s work without permission.

What I’d like:

I’d like a world with reasonably consistent copyright terms, limited to a length of time that allows the immediate personal heirs to benefit (20 or 25 years, perhaps, rather than the current complex system of 50 or 75 years from various dates.) Enough time that the infant child of an individual creator could reasonably have their needs as they grow supported by sales of the work. Not so much time that they are relying on it rather than making their own way in the world.

(I have friends who disagree with me on this one, and think copyright should end at death. I’ve known enough people – including my father – who were working on various projects while dying of terminal illnesses that I think something that protects rights for a period of time after death is only sensible. Otherwise, these people will be more likely to go do something else like spend all their remaining time with their family, and everyone else loses out on their take on that project.)

I’d like a world where corporate copyrights were handled more sensibly. I want companies who do great research, and create wonderful works of art, and do other nifty things, to be rewarded. That’s only sensible. But I think that copyright law should also recognise that they have a certain benefit of scale that individual creators do not have the same access to.

I’d like a world where tracking down the copyright holder was a pretty simple thing to do – a central registry that could be accessed in a relatively trivial manner. (The technology’s there for it now: we just don’t have the collected data stored in a way that makes those connections easy.) Such a registry would also make it easier for people who, for example, were fine with non-profit uses to give quick permission.

And I definitely want a system where handling misuse of someone’s material online were much improved – in terms of the creator identifying their own work, in terms of having misused material removed quickly and easily, and in terms of handling malicious and incorrect complaints well. Again, the technology is there: I would cheerfully pay a yearly fee to dump my blog posts and other submitted materials into a third-party registry that date and time stamps them, so that any future complaint could be compared against that registered material, if it meant I knew I could handle any material used without permission quickly and easily.

I’m a realist: I don’t think I’m going to get any of these things, any time soon. But one can hope – and more importantly, one can take steps towards all of these things over time.

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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