In the late 18th century, English society underwent a major structural change: the enclosure of the commons. The enclosure movement effectively destroyed ancient patterns of rural life, as wealthy land-owners used legal clout to turn peasant farmers into landless laborers. Something similar is happening here and now; an attempt by powerful media companies to enclose our common cultural heritage inside a fence of copyright law.
Copyright is one of the few specific powers enumerated in the American constitution. “The Congress shall have the power To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Copyright was initially established at 14 years, with a 14 year renewal, but the term has been lengthed repeatedly, with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act bringing the duration to life of the author plus seventy years, or 120 years for corporate authors. At the same time, the scope of copyright has expanded from maps and direct copies of literary works to all forms of media, adaptations, and translations.
The stated rational is that extending copyright benefits creators, and while it does, this grand cultural enclosure has inflicted grievous harm on our cultural vitality. It walls off immense tracts of our shared heritage, fights against technological architecture, and has raised high barriers to entry. At the current rate, any work created after 1923 will remain in copyright effectively forever, even if it has become completely out of print and of only limited utility to anyone. Bringing old works into the open is very difficult, because there is now registry of copyright owners, and prospective publishers must prepare for surprise lawsuits. For a devote of old culture this is a crime.
On a computer, there is no difference between the act of reading and the act of copying. Software controls are required to prevent copying, strictly making our digital tools less useful. As a simple example, Adobe's restrictions on use mean that I can't easily highlight and annotate academic papers. So much paperless office, or a searchable, linked database of articles I've read, and for the protection of who's rights? The penalties for violating copyright are entirely excessive. The putative fines associated with a typical pirated music library are an order of magnitude larger than the gross revenue of the entire music industry.
But most significantly of all, no cultural artiface exists in a vacuum, and internet culture especially is a mash-up, a juxaposition and collage of objects in a new context, whether it be youtube videos or fan fiction. I can't deny the quality of a lot of internet culture is terrible, but it is sandbox tomorrow's artists play in. As it stands, monetizing internet culture is basically impossible, and working in the medium exposes you to those putative copyright violation penalties. There are ways around this, through fair use and getting permission, but that's expensive in terms of time and lawyer's fees. Copyright has become a barrier to commerce and creative expression.
What can we do? We can slap the Creative Commons license on everything, but that's a crude patch. Copyright law should be rewritten to recognize that not all works of art are equal. If you want a copyright, you should be forced to pay a nominal fee for it. The term should be short, and extensions easy, but rising in cost with the term and value of the copyright. Lobby your Congress-drones, support open media, and prepare for the infopocalypse.
((With thanks to Lawrence Lessig and his book Free Culture))