Thoughts on Copyright Law and the Internet

For the most part, copyright has always been about a balance between the rights of creators and the general public. Prior to the advent of digital networks, it was comparatively easier to restrict rights of reproduction and distribution because the tools were expensive. However, we’ve lost sight that copyright is, in fact, not a natural right but a government granted time-limited monopoly. And much like all monopolies, has evolved to do little more than protect monopolistic positions, gut the public domain and restrict users rights.

But the Internet changed all that. It disintermediated, dematerialized and disrupted content industries and gave users the tools and technologies to right that balance; challenging the current rule of law has driven this to and fro between content industries using copyright law to protect their business models vs. the semi anarchic liberty of the internet. In the recent past, one could reasonably say that the Internet has seen major successes – witness the death of SOPA and the imminent demise of ACTA.

That isn’t to say there is no rule of law around copyright and content on the Internet. Perhaps users on the Internet are trying to reclaim the original intent of copyright law? Perhaps the answer is not more law but more innovation? Much like the historic battle over the VCR and time-shifting, if you look at things we take for granted today – the iPod, iTunes, TataSky+, MusicMatch – they pretty much all had their origins in titanic clashes between users and technology companies on the one side and content industries on the other and that progression continues.

And that’s a particular asymmetry when talking about copyright law and the Internet. That the overemphasis of infringing uses of new technologies consistently undervalues possible future benefits – not just to users but to content industries too. It’s this lack of focus on the non-infringing innovative uses that has been the downfall of the content industry – little wonder Apple is one of the largest sellers of music and video online.

It’s not just companies that have fought technological change. The composer John Philip Sousa once lamented that “These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country” in the context of recording music. But things are changing, though. Artists recognise the power of technology and leverage it. Such as multiple award winning music artist, Moby, who is not just giving away his content for free but encouraging listeners to remix it and even profit from it. They recognise that the value equation has moved from mere content to monetisable experiences.

There’s this story about James Watt and the steam engine – that while he held patents that covered his invention, the U.K. added only about 750 horsepower of steam engines per year and in the three decades following the expiry of these patents, horsepower was added at a rate of more than 4,000 per year while fuel efficiency increased by a factor of five.

To me, that’s the crux of the matter. Protected content industries propped up by copyright law have been disrupted by the Internet. And that’s good for users, copyright law, innovation and the economy. There’s something I read a couple of years ago – an artist was in discussion with a group of teenagers and in the context of content they said that “We don’t want everything for free. We just want everything.” Maybe it’s not always the law that’s in the way.


About gkjohn

Recovering lawyer, erstwhile entrepreneur, pretend polymath, hopeful zookeeper and future dilettante and farmer of organic strawberries. Work at @aksharadotorg and @klpdotorg. Previously at @prathambooks. Was a @tedfellow.
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