Saturday, 12 February 2011

Copyright in the current age: are we losing our cultural heritage?

For one reason or another, I recently had a few thoughts about copyright. I recall that I started thinking about it a few days ago, started writing this post, then left it for a bit to come back to. Its a subject I have followed in the news for some time (notably with the 'speculative invoicing' that has been in and out of the news sites multiple times in the last few years), and one I was interested in when it was covered in one of the modules I did for my Masters Degree. 
Copyright law originally started in the 1600's/1700's as a way to control newly invented printing presses, as before this was done by hand so was difficult to do on a large scale. Initially supposed to provide limited rights against mass copying for a limited time, to allow new creativity to be part of culture for all. It has evolved over time, covering more than just printed books; music, pictures, photos, video, etc. The length of copyright has increased too, mainly in the last century, in no small part to persuasion to keep certain Disney characters under the control of the company (which has led to some of resulting laws being referred to as 'Micky Mouse Laws'), the affects of which are still seen today. 


The World Intellectual Property Organisation say of current copyright: 
The purpose of copyright and related rights is twofold: to encourage a dynamic creative culture, while returning value to creators so that they can lead a dignified economic existence, and to provide widespread, affordable access to content for the public.>" [1]


It is the latter I am not convinced of; "affordable access to content for the public". Copyright laws nowadays seem focused on preventing people having access to work at all; some works are only available in certain countries at certain times, some of the 'protection' on certain digital works (particularly Digital Rights Management') don't always guarantee someone from the public having access to culture at all. Affordability wise is also questionable, CD's and DVD's started out costing a lot to allow for recuperation of research costs, but the prices haven't gone down all too much. The actual worth of a DVD for instance is fairly low; I have seen many on a shelf for £1, maybe £3, when less than a year ago they were going for £18 or so. 


The laws are also restricting, not just the access to content, but the use of it by the public. Most of this creative content makes up the bulk of current culture, yet it is locked away behind outdated laws preventing the public from being able to actually interact with the culture they have grown up with and are immersed in.  


Quite a lot of the laws don't make scene to the average member of the public. In the UK, for a while (I don't know if it is still the case) it was not allowed to rip music from a CD to play on your computer or portable music players. So in theory when MP3 players were first being sold (before you could buy music online anywhere), there would be little to fill it up with without breaking some arcane copyright law, but it was done anyway, because it was natural. Recently there was a Facebook campaign for people to put a picture of their favourite childhood cartoon as their Facebook profile. Facebook terms of use aside, how many copyright violations would have been caused for users Googleing a childhood memory and uploading it? How many even considered they might be breaking a law that doesn't even make sense nowadays. 


A few weeks back I read an article on the Open Rights Group website about writers who now had works in the public domain; I hadn't heard of any of the writers mentioned as a interesting as it would be to find out more, as they would have been written so long ago (before I was born, I'm sure), I don't know how relevant they would be, or how much I would even understand (Berlin wall fell the year I was born, I have no knowledge of living under threat of a Cold War for example). 


From a young age children are encouraged to share their toys etc. with others, why is the exact opposite encouraged with copyrighted works? Why can culture not be shared, why does it have to be locked away from the public? With little access apart from being an observer only, with no interaction, with no enhancement on current culture, are we doomed to lose large portions of it? For it to be forgotten and lost to time? It isn't a very appealing thought. 


[1] http://www.wipo.int/copyright/en/