Copyright used to be a pretty specialized area of law, one that didn’t seem to affect the lives of most people. But with the proliferation of digital technologies and the Internet, a funny thing happened: copyright policy became speech policy, and it started to show up in all sorts of unexpected and unwelcome places.
It’s no longer the case that copyright is only a concern if you run the kind of company that has its own theme parks. Instead, copyright policy can have an effect on any user posting to her favorite sites, sharing videos she’s captured or photos she’s taken. It can affect your basic freedom to tinker, make, and repair your stuff. And it gives content owners, and governments, a powerful censorship tool, with far too little oversight.
Raymond Carver signing books, New York City, 1988
Does an author have the right to prevent people from copying their book(s) for free? Should authors have this right? Does it matter?
We’ve been talking about the Golan case, and its possible impact on culture, for years. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s the third in a line of cases, starting with the Eldred case, to challenge aspects of copyright law as violating the First Amendment. The key point in the case was questioning whether or not the US could take works out of the public domain and put them under copyright. The US had argued it needed to do this under a trade agreement to make other countries respect our copyrights. Of course, for those who were making use of those public domain works, it sure seemed like a way to unfairly lock up works that belonged to the public. It was difficult to see how retroactively taking works out of the public domain could fit into the traditional contours of copyright law… but today… that’s exactly what happened (pdf).
I inaugurated this column in 2008 with an editorial called ‘‘Why I Copyfight’’, which talked about the tricky balance between creativity, culture, and the relationship between audiences and creators. These have always been hard subjects, and the Internet has made them harder still, because the thing that triggers copyright rules – copying – is an intrinsic part of the functioning of the Internet and computers. There’s really no such thing as ‘‘loading’’ a web-page – you make a copy of it. There’s really no such thing as ‘‘reading’’ a file off a hard-drive – you copy it into memory.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century: copyright policy ceased to exist. Because every copyright policy that we make has a seismic effect on the Internet, and because you can’t regulate copying without regulating the Internet.
The nation’s major internet service providers, at the urging of Hollywood and the major record labels, have agreed to disrupt internet access for online copyright scofflaws.
The deal, almost three years in the making, was announced early Thursday, and includes participation by AT&T, Cablevision Systems, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon. After four copyright offenses, the historic plan calls for these companies to initiate so-called “mitigation measures” (.pdf) that might include reducing internet speeds and redirecting a subscriber’s service to an “educational” landing page about infringement.
The internet companies may eliminate service altogether for repeat file sharing offenders, although the plan does not directly call for such drastic action.