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Nov 16 / Joanna Sturgeon

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
United States Copyright Office.(n.d.). The Constitutional Provision Respecting Copyright. Retrieved November 11, 2013 from

YouTube. (n.d.). YouTube Community Guidelines. Retrieved November 11, 2013 from

YouTube. (n.d.). Copyright on YouTube. Retrieved November 11, 2013 from


  1. Isidoro Alastra / Nov 22 2013

    One of the biggest problems I have with copyright law the way it is now is the 70 year period of copyright protection after the author’s death. In an age where knowledge can be potentially utilized and synthesized immediately for cultural and scientific benefit, the rights period should have been lessened rather than expanded as time passed. Instead of exorbitant flat fees charged for using copyrighted work for profitable purposes, why not receive royalties based on the profits received for utilizing the copyrighted work? Not only would the original creators be rewarded, but the ones who creatively used those works would not be made bankrupt in the process.

    I mean, look at a company like Disney who modified all kinds of copyrighted works in their creations which have often become more famous than the original works they are based off of. If the copyright dates for entering public domain were as long back then as they are now, I highly doubt the company would have the same reputation that they do now.

  2. Barb Szutkowski / Nov 22 2013

    The topic of copyright and digital rights management is especially important to library and information science professionals. Your perspective on the impact of copyright laws on innovation is helpful in trying to better understand the issues. An important fact which some people may not know is that the Copyright Act of 1976 eliminated the previous registration requirement, making any creative work automatically copyrighted when it is created. This contributes to the importance of modifying current copyright law.

    It was helpful that you provided examples of how utilizing copyrighted material can be a barrier to entry in the arts and sciences as a profession. Another issue which is mentioned in articles about copyright is the difficulty in tracing who actually owns the copyright over an extended period of time. It can be difficult or impossible to discover the holder of the copyright or if the work is actually in the public domain due to the fact that the rights to the copyright can be transferred through various companies or individuals. This seems to contribute to the push within the digital preservation community for the following:

    1. Creative commons licenses
    2. Permissions allowing for dissemination and preservation actions after a certain limited period of time or after a predetermined event, such as a death or dissolution of a company.

    The copyright issue can be thought of as a reflection of larger societal trends. Since most of us know that the majority of wealth, power and information are controlled by the few, copyright laws can be seen as another example of the powerful few dominating the production of creative and scientific works. Certainly, there are plenty of starving artists and resource poor scientists who still create substantial work. However, it is disturbing to think that some great research and innovation is essentially controlled by a small minority. It is unlikely that this minority shares the same goals as the majority populace. The courts have turned a blind eye to the situation, allowing monopolies to spring up and favoring the rights of organizations over individuals. Projects like Google Scholar and the open access movement prove that many scholars are interested in sharing work. Hopefully this trend will continue to increase in the future. It is often said that there are few original ideas anymore. While that statement may not be true, it is true that a great deal of advanced discoveries have already been made and documented. What if everyone could build off of this research to create something even bigger and better? [Group Response]

  3. Kerry Roman / Nov 16 2013

    You make some very interesting points. I am strongly in favor of scientists, artists, and authors receiving payment for their original creations. However, I believe the current copyright law of lifetime plus 70 years is a bit extreme. It seems like there could be a happy medium. I can see how current copyright laws could prohibit progress of science and the arts. Your example of a poor scientist not being able to discover something new because he/she does not have the financial means to access certain copyrighted material is great. In that respect it does inhibit science. I also believe some artists are more creative because they have a comfort level that they will be rewarded for the fruits of their labor.

    As for YouTube, the fact that people who post are not gaining monetarily for their contributions make it less of a concern for the original artist.

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