How Copyright Kills Innovation
Written by Isidoro Alastra
How many times have you seen a picture on the internet and thought to yourself that it would be the perfect image for your blog if it were legal to use? How many times have you read an article and decided not to use information in it that would enhance your own writing because citing it would be too complex? It is true that there are free resources available to use legally when you need them. However, they are often scant and overused to the point where they damage the originality of the works with which they are associated. Having to consider whether something is acceptable to use can destroy the inventive spirit that could result in cultural or practical innovations.
Copyright law has become much stronger since its creation in 1790. In the past, authors held rights to their work for 14 years with the opportunity to renew their rights for 14 more years if they were still living. (Bailey, 2006, p. 117-118). Currently, a content producer who created a work on or after January 1, 1978 is covered for their lifetime plus 70 years. (Bailey, 2006, p. 118). In addition, rights holders have much more control over how people can use copyrighted items than they did in the past.
According to the United States Government Copyright Office “The Congress shall have 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.” (United States Copyright Office, n.d.). The big questions to ask are:
1. Do stronger copyright laws that keep copyrighted works out of the public domain longer promote the progress of science and the arts?
2. Does granting copyright holders the power to exert more control over how others use their work promote the progress of science and the arts?
Copyright laws may scare people away from innovation, and kill the creative process. An example of this can be seen with the rise of hip hop starting in 1987. As a “fad” early artists were able to get away with using samples from established artists freely in their music at very low costs without the heavy risk of legal repercussions. (Fassler, 2011, para.7). Based on the number and type of samples the Beastie Boys used in their album Paul’s Boutique in 1989, Capitol Records (their publisher) would have lost 20 million dollars obtaining all the rights to the samples going by the current value of the music samples used. (Fassler, 2011). That 20 million dollar loss also takes into consideration that the record sold 2.5 million units. (Fassler, 2011).
To obtain rights to the sample of a song, artists need permission from the original publisher, the original artist, and every subsequent artist who has used the same sample in their music. (Fassler, 2011). After hip hop lost its fad status and became big business, copyright holders sued artists and won their cases in 1992. (Fassler, 2011). Since then, higher sample prices have created a serious barrier of entry for hip-hop artists. The Beastie Boys, and other hip hop artists of the time, would not have been able to afford to establish themselves in the current copyright environment.
Strict copyright has particularly negative implications for progress in scientific developments like genetics. Consider the consequences of restricting original research only to scientists in a lab or consortia. There’s always the risk that a brilliant but resource poor scientist may never make an important discovery simply because he or she cannot legally use or access copyrighted research. This idea is particularly unsettling when we consider the number of breakthroughs in science that have occurred throughout history utilizing work from outside the subject content area of the initial research.
To get a taste of what a copyright light culture of information might be like, consider the information ecology of YouTube. YouTube arguably contains one of the largest user-generated collections of easily accessible copyrighted material on the internet. YouTube does have policies in place that are in line with copyright law and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA). (YouTube, n.d.). However, since YouTube exercises control over the accounts using their service the worst consequence for pervasive copyright violators is usually account termination. (YouTube, n.d.).
The anonymity of internet accounts helps protect people from the debilitating consequences of copyright violation and we can begin to see just how creative people can get. Any search for song mashups, unofficial music remixes and videos, original media reviews, memes, or machinima on YouTube will reveal many works of art that violate copyright law, and YouTube’s own community guidelines, as written. While judging the scientific and cultural value of these copyright-violating videos goes beyond the scope of this article (and the capabilities of any single human being), the fact that a few of them generate millions of views on YouTube does merit them cultural value.
Bailey, C.W. (2006). Strong Copyright + DRM + Weak Net Neutrality = Digital Dystopia?. Information Technology and Libraries, 25(3), 116.
Fassler, J. (2011, April 12). How Copyright Law Hurts Music [conversation with Kembrew McLeod], From Chuck D to Girl Talk. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/04/how-copyright-law-hurts-music-from-chuck-d-to-girl-talk/236975/
United States Copyright Office.(n.d.). The Constitutional Provision Respecting Copyright. Retrieved November 11, 2013 from http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92preface.html
YouTube. (n.d.). YouTube Community Guidelines. Retrieved November 11, 2013 from http://www.youtube.com/t/community_guidelines
YouTube. (n.d.). Copyright on YouTube. Retrieved November 11, 2013 from http://www.youtube.com/yt/copyright/