News stories about copyright often pop up in the technology press. The subtext is usually like: “here’s how deeply broken copyright is.”

Don’t believe the subtext. Copyright is not broken in any sense that matters.

Copyright is in the process of adapting to changes in information technology. The process of adapting will take a longish time. The process started in the 1980s, which led to passage of landmark legislation such as the DMCA in the 1990s. In the years 2000-2010 the DMCA safe harbors were tested and defined in detail, and internet sites went from flat defiance of the law to grudging compliance. That’s 25 years of progress. I imagine 25 more will complete the job.

Copyright is not a monolithic thing that can be fixed with a sweep of the hand. It is a large body of law and common law. Nobody in any stable government, whether a judge or legislator, is empowered to make deep changes. Even the most powerful can only make tweaks.

These tweaks pile up and very slowly turn into major change. The process is like a glacier carving out a valley one grain of dirt at a time.

We are riding on that glacier, so it is hard to see the changes. That problem is caused by how small we are in the universe. As individuals we want change to happen at a pace that’s convenient to our perceptions, like the dramatic arc of a 30-minute sitcom. You can step out of that limitation if you choose.

When you see a story about how broken copyright is, it’s part of the glacier’s movement. Maybe the impact will be an improvement in how copyright owners and web sites communicate. Maybe the impact will be slightly more fair treatment of uploaders. Whatever it is, it will be small, so you will be tempted to think it’s too small to matter.

6 thoughts on “

  1. Subtext that copyright is “broken” seems entirely fair, both in the gross sense that as a whole it isn’t anywhere close to optimal public policy and narrowly, many of its specifics are bizarre or offensive. Retroactive extension is probably the canonical instance of both. Little special about copyright in its brokenness; suspect many other policy areas with similarly shaped capture and obscurantism, and each ought be thought of as broken. In a way that matters? Does that mean in a way that is fixable on a timescale humans can easily appreciate and through intentional actions by humans? Maybe not, but that seems an almost too cynical assessment. If the subtext of “broken” implies instead that there’s one “fix”, if only we did x or stopped doing y, that’s totally unrealistic. I prefer to attempt to assess the entire iceberg, not the contested tip represented by x or y. But that’s probably little more than an aesthetic preference on my part. And it misses the glacier from which the entire iceberg has broken off of…

  2. I do mean the subtext of “broken” implies instead that there’s one “fix”, if only we did x or stopped doing y.

    Individual humans can take part in the fixing process and can sometimes make contributions which have a substantial impact on the outcome.

    But the bulk of change will be in the large scale natural flow of history. There are many millions of people taking part at big personal cost. For example poor Tenenbaum’s $675,000 debt is only one drip in the process.

    My suggestion for how to change is to first understand the problem at the appropriate scale, which is at least a half century and trillions of dollars.

    (This is hilariously well said: “it isn’t anywhere close to optimal public policy and narrowly, many of its specifics are bizarre or offensive. Retroactive extension is probably the canonical instance of both.”)

  3. I can certainly agree that copyright is not broken.

    Indeed, I’ve often said that it is not copyright that is broken, but its erstwhile supporters – who are no longer able to sustain their indoctrination that copyright is a fundamentally good thing.

    There is no common law behind copyright. That was one of James Madison’s little lies, I mean ‘misunderstandings’.

    The legislative morass of this cancerous privilege, unethically abridging the people’s natural liberty, can indeed be swept away, firstly by popular disobedience, and secondly by a simple act of abolition, when eventually, like blasphemy, the idea of prosecuting someone for an act of copying or communicating their own culture (without the copyright holder’s permission) is immediately recognised as bizarrely illiberal if not unjust and superstitious.

    Copyright will burn more brightly as popular disobedience increases (the cartel will not hesitate to exhaust their funds in their futile struggle to retain their privilege). This may well fool some people into thinking that copyright will ‘win’, that perhaps they were silly for thinking copyright was in decline, that it is simply undergoing disruptive change and will emerge pristine – into a law that people gladly respect and obey.

  4. Crosbie, it’s not civil disobedience to gorge on media funded by big corporations. It’s “let them eat cake” for children raised on TV – “let me eat cake.”

    I don’t think copyright is a fundamentally good thing, by the way. I think it’s a convenient handle for regulation of the content industries, mostly driven by demand from content companies for favorable treatment in the courts.

    But I don’t blame people for hustling to make a living. That’s how democracy works. Vigorous jostling between interest groups is the substance of popular rule.

    Abolitionism is a plausible ideology. If you want to go there, do it. But the content that attracts file sharers is the content funded for the purpose of exploiting copyright. Nobody’s sharing home videos on BitTorrent. They’re sharing American Idol. The death of copyright is not what you’re seeing there.

  5. The distribution of works shared by file-sharers is disturbing, but not as problematic as “the content that attracts file sharers is the content funded for the purpose of exploiting copyright” makes it sound. Similar content would be produced anyway (sadly, by my minority taste) without copyright, as seen in pre-enforcement cultures contemporary and past. File sharers just share what is popular, and something would be popular no matter what info policy regime existed. But the unpopularity of [semi-]unrestricted works is damning for both “free culture” and “copyright reform” movements, such as they are.

    My sentences are typically drolly ill said, but I’ll accept a superior evaluation for those two. :)

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